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European fans

Messel Mica Fan

The Messel Mica Fan
Folding fan, the leaf composed of three bands of mica panels
European, late 17th Century

In Europe, thriving fan-making industries offered novel opportunities for creative expression, including the use of unusual materials. One of the oldest European fans in the Museum's collection, dating to about 1665, is also one of the most unusual and rare. It has a leaf made of translucent layers of mica mounted in paper to create three tiers, and is painted with images of figures, plants and animals on each of the panels with lots of dark red tones to catch the eye of the viewer.

The mounts or leaves were not the only lavishly decorated part of fans. The sticks also, both the internal ones, and the two outer ones gripped when the fan is closed (known as guardsticks) offered opportunities for artistic display. Folding fans pair delicateness with sturdiness, and it is the sticks which provide the durability, often made of ivory, tortoiseshell or mother-of-pearl. These materials could readily be carved or painted, gilded, or encrusted with gems, and sticks could be reused when the leaves become worn-out or outmoded.

Fan guard with chinoiserie decoration

Guard with chinoiserie decoration
Continental, c.1750

Like the mounts or leaves of fans, all kinds of designs can be found on sticks. One especially popular style represented in the gallery is known as chinosierie. As Chinese art increasingly made its way into Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, Western artists, including fan-makers, began to copy and experiment in their own work with the scenes and motifs they saw. The centre of the ivory guard shown here for example, includes a small Chinese figure somewhat incongruously sitting beneath a putto and garlands, while this European folding fan (below) of c.1750-75, possibly from Germany, uses Chinese motifs on both mount and stick: The painted scenes on the fan feature a flowering branch on one side and four Chinese figures outdoors on the other, and pierced bamboo-like strips of ivory form the sticks.

Image of folding fan

Folding fan
Continental, perhaps German
double paper leaf, painted, appliquéd, and gilt; pierced ivory sticks

Image of folding fan

Image of brisé fan

Brisé fan
French, c.1820
horn sticks and guards with ends shaped to resemble crocketed pinnacles, pierced, painted in bodycolour, gilt and set with cut steels

Makers of brisé fans were also very ingenious. As this example from about 1820 makes clear, these brisé fans have no shortage of elaborate decoration and materials. Here intricate piercing and gilding enliven the horn sticks, some of which are also exquisitely painted with panels illustrating three of La Fontaine's Fables: the Cock and the Pearl; the Milkmaid and the Pot of Milk; and the Wolf and the Stork.

Scenes from Greek myths, literature, historical events, politics, and special occasions such as foreign travel, balls, or marriages, all sparked the imagination of fan-makers, and found their place on fans. Fans served as souvenirs of a particular place or event, and commemorated special moments in the life of an individual or country. This diversity of themes is well represented in the Museum's collection.

Image of folding fan

Folding fan
French, c.1780
double silk leaf, painted and decorated with sequins, beads, and metal foil; mother-of-pearl sticks, pierced, silvered, and gilt

A French folding fan made of silk from c. 1780 depicts fashionable upper-class pastimes, such as the ritual of visiting, embroidering, and making music, in this case, playing the harpsichord. The use of textiles, especially silk was popular and offered fan-makers and customers yet another medium for expression.

Image of folding fan

Folding fan
Spanish, c.1830
double 'chickenskin' leaf, painted, printed, and gilt; ivory sticks decorated with sequins, mother-of-pearl, and gold foil

A wedding inspired an early 19th century Spanish fan, which features on one side of the mount, a lush green lakeside landscape and two couples in a boat gliding through the water surrounded by putti; the reverse shows a card party in progress.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, the feather fan came back into vogue as an evening dress accessory, and until the Second World War, they were also carried with court dress. Among the most recent fans in the gallery, this ostrich feather court fan, was used by the donor's mother when presenting her at court in 1928.

Image of court fan

Court fan
English, T.L. Mumford, London, early 20th century
Brown and white female ostrich feather (probably South African); tortoiseshell sticks. Given by Mrs G. Nathan