WHEN I was young enough to bounce my forehead off tea tables as my mother viewed an auction, antique fans were a familiar sight. Gripped tightly in dry shagreen cases, crashed like fractured birds into mixed boxes or stretched brutally, framed and faded, they were cheap, rather poignant lots.
Most fascinating and dating from the 1920s, were the great drifts of ostrich feathers set on mother of pearl handles. Fabulous with luxury and made for court debutantes and flappers dipping their smoky eyes in the shadows of a night club, Art Deco fans retain their racy, burlesque naughtiness.
Decades on, swirls of ancient dust would rise from the grubby plumage beating the air in the clumsy hands of some adult auction viewer.
Palms leaves and feathers provided some of the earliest fans for mankind, chosen for their light weight and undulating movement. Tutankhamen had a gold mount for a feather hand fan, tucked away in his tomb.
Hand fans first arrived in Ireland the British Isles in the 16th century from the Far East, and came in rigid and feather varieties. Some were pleated and held by end (guard) stays, others opened in sections over each other in ribboned sticks, while others were stiff shield styles held by a small handle. Stick fans without material in bone and ivory are known as brisé.
Queen Elizabeth I, had dozens of folding, flag and feather fans. She was notoriously vain about her hands, and many paintings of the monarch feature a fan as part of her royal theatrics. These early fans were suspended from the skirt until needed.
By the 18th century, the French were recognised as supreme fan makers, specialising in folding fans with gorgeous painted, gilded, lace and lithographed decoration. Intended to cool a flushed, often over- excited female face, the fan had emerged as an elegant, articulated extension of a pretty hand, part of a woman’s arsenal of essential charms.
An emotional propeller, it cleaved the air, tapping out emphatics, snapped open and shut according to the mood of its holder. A fan provided perfect shelter for a gossip (three or four raised fans made a nice little copse in a huddle of bustles).
With its neat decorative edge a fan could be quickly whipped into position as an attractive horizon for a pair of beautiful, well directed eyes.
In simplest terms, the accelerating tremble of the fan could openly mimic the rising beat of a young woman’s heart. She was visibly all a-flutter.
It’s said that it was also used to transmit an intimate, sophisticated code of forbidden emotions — the language of the fan. A sort of ballroom text, the fan could be touched to the body, run through the idle hand, dealt open with a flick of the wrist and manipulated in a complex mime using the cheek, the choice of hand and a series of gestures.
Is it really conceivable that all this fan jiggery-pokery was going on under the noses of chaperones, mamas and slit eyed maiden aunts with a nose for potential social disgrace? I doubt it.
For collectors, the 18th century provides the most exquisite fans from France and countries to which French Protestant fan makers sought refuge after the Edict of Nantes.
The British craftsmen had their own ‘Worshipful Company of Fan Makers’ (est. 1709), but also imported fans from Europe and China during these years. Fans were used by all classes by the late 1700s and you can find examples in various conditions, in silk, parchment and thin kid termed ‘chickenskin’.
The images on these fan leaves are safe, fluffy Rococo nonsense, unlikely to get raise hackles amongst strangers in the assembly rooms. Ruins, harbour views, pretty girls, frolicking shepherdesses and grinning cherubs were popular folding pictures.
Early 18th century fans often form a third of a circle rather than the half of Victorian fans.
Fans were an ideal souvenir of the Great Tour for the gentry and aristocracy. Foreign made fans were gifted to mothers, sisters and sweethearts, showing for instance the Bay of Naples or the wonders of Pompeii.
The sticks of a fan in ivory, tortoiseshell or mother-of-pearl can be highly decorative too with elaborate piercing and fanciful chinosierie motifs.
A ‘U’ shaped bracket holding the sticks together at the base and any tassel is a sign of a 19th century fan. 1700s examples have a small rivet, sometimes finished in a jewel.
Printed fans date from around 1780 forward, a technique which considerably reduced cost for the makers.
Fans intended for the lower classes were made in wood sticks and printed paper, and did not hold up well. During the French Revolution, political slogans were printed on proletariat paper fans to stir up more than a breeze.
Reproductions and 19th century fans copying 18th century styles made in the Far East complicate the market. It’s difficult for the starter collector to tell celluloid from bone sticks, or the real from the fake.
Join a collectors club and get to know what to look for in styles and materials for real, period fans. Buy any investment piece from a specialist and ensure you have a written receipt of authenticity for your fan.
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