Wimbledon WI visit to the Fan Museum at Greenwich
On 20th January 2016
Fifteen of us visited this fascinating museum on 20th January 2016.
The Museum is housed in two adjoining houses, built in 1721 in the reign of George I, that have been meticulously restored to their original glory.
We were greeted in the Reception Room by Helene Alexander, the founder and current Director of the Museum Trust, who gave us a brief overview of the foundation of the Trust, the work involved in restoring the buildings and the care and maintenance of the collections. We then adjourned to the Orangery for coffee and biscuits.
Although not part of the museum as such the Orangery is worth mentioning. Looking out over a charming garden laid out in the formal style if the early 18th century, the Orangery walls are covered in Italianate murals (painted by Jane Barraclough, a theatrical designer with whom Helene has been friends since they were at art school together in the 1950s). The central light fitting is a chandelier style piece in Venetian glass acquired by Helene on a recent visit to Venice. The tables were laid with fine china, also provided by Helene, which complemented the elegant surroundings.
After coffee we returned to the Reception Room, met our very knowledgeable guide, Mary Kitson, and began our tour.
Mary explained that the museum comprises two distinct displays: one on the ground floor which is permanent and serves as an introduction to fans – their history, manufacture and variety; the other on the first floor which is thematic and changes several times a year. It was our good fortune to be the first group to visit this, the museum’s 25th anniversary, year. For this celebratory event the museum has dug deep into its collections and mounted a display of remarkably diverse fans spanning the period 1590 to 2016.
We began in the Reception Room itself which is dedicated to un-mounted and extended European fan leaves dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These are, in effect, the decorated or painted leaves of fans that have been framed as pictures after the fan has been dismantled. Mary explained that Monarchs, particularly Louis XIV of France, habitually requisitioned the precious metals and gems that decorated fans to finance their wars. As the leaves of the fans were usually works of art in themselves the owners did their best to conserve them. Among the unmounted fan leaves displayed in the Reception Room is an elaborate ‘painting’ on vellum depicting the Grand Dauphin’s twentieth birthday celebrations. This ‘window’ onto French Court life during the reign of Louis XIV is one of the museum’s many highlights.
From the Reception Room we moved to The Green Room. Largely devoted to explaining how fans are made, this room also houses two of the museum’s ‘gems’: a fan painted by Walter Sickert and a fan-shaped design by Paul Gauguin.
We then moved to the first floor where the special 25th anniversary display is mounted. This is a dazzling array of fans, once the property of Royal and other high-born European ladies, and mostly from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Interesting as it would be, it is not practical to discuss in detail all of the beautiful and historic fans that are on display so I have chosen three that, between them, give an idea of the extent and interest of the collections.
I will begin with The Elizabethan Folding Fan (c.1590-1630). This is an exquisitely embroidered silk fan with ivory sticks joined at the pivot end with cord or ribbon. This type of fan is thought to have been fashionable for only a short time and was often worn with the ‘wheel farthingale’ dresses popular at the Court of Elizabeth I. Indeed, the fan is displayed beneath a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in which she is shown wearing a very similar fan on her girdle. Thought to be the only surviving fan of this type, it was acquired for the Nation for £45,000. The acquisition was funded by the Friends of the Museum and grants from such sources as the Art Fund, National Heritage Memorial Fund and other philanthropic sources.
From this late 16th/early 17th century fan we jump to the late 19th century and ‘Stephanie’s fan’.
This beautiful fan was given to Princess Stephanie of the Belgians by her aunt and uncle, the Count and Countess of Flanders, on her ill-fated marriage to Prince Rudolph von Hapsburg (heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1881. The sticks of mother of pearl are beautifully carved with flowers and tendrils and musical instruments and there is a gold and diamond loop on either side of the rivet. There is applied gold to the guards which are further decorated with fine silverwork and 1,500 rose diamonds with a diamond crowned ‘S’ on one of them. The double vellum leaf is painted on both sides, signed Cesare Dell ‘Acqu and dated 1881.
The Museum’s newest acquisition is a very modern fan entitled ‘Swan Lake’. This was made by Sylvain Le Guen just two weeks ago. The sticks and guards are ebony. The sticks are overlaid with mother of pearl and the front guard with crystals and a ‘lacing’ of black vinyl. The leaf is white organza applied with white and black petals and bordered with pearl paint. The black petals are further applied with white ostrich feather barbs, black rooster and black swansdown.
These three fans demonstrate what has changed and what has remained constant in the art of fan-making over the centuries. Swan Lake, made in 2016, has the same basic structure as the Elizabethan Fan and Stephanie’s Fan but each of the three represents its own time in the materials used and the decorations applied to them. It was interesting to learn that fan making is still a thriving art form and an industry. I am reliably informed that Sylvain Le Guen is currently employed restoring a fan of blue jay feathers for the Duchess of Cornwall: at the other end of the scale fans are still being mass produced in China (where fans originated) for weddings, parties, theatrical productions and decorations of all descriptions.
21st January 2016.
With many thanks to Camilla Hiscock, Curatorial Assistant at the Fan Museum, for providing me with unpublished information about the three very special fans described above.