In a small corner of Greenwich, there is a little gem called The Fan Museum – and what a joy it was to visit. It is the only Museum in the UK which is devoted to the history of fans and the art of fan making.
It is housed in a restored pair of Georgian houses, constructed in 1721. The Fan Museum started life in 1986 and was set up by the Fan Museum Trust. It was based on the Heléne Alexander collection of 2,000 fans which she had started to build up in the 1970s. The Museum’s collection has been supplemented by gifts, acquisitions and bequests, so that there are now over 4,000 fans.
We were greeted with a glass of Prosecco before going downstairs to the Orangery where our tutor, Caroline Allingham, was ready to teach us how to make a ‘Fontange’ fan. This fan has guard sticks which are shorter than the leaf and has a round appearance. Putting the fan sticks on the back of our piece of pleated paper proved quite an art in itself and I managed to excel myself by sticking together two sticks which I could not prise apart!
The permanent collection of fans is housed behind glass on the ground floor. The fans are exquisite and the workmanship, superb. Many of the fans had wonderfully designed patterns, edged with silver and gold wire and leaves often made of fine lace. We saw many ‘Brisé’ fans which are made only of sticks and held together at the top by cord or ribbon. The easiest material with which to work is ivory, whilst the most prized is tortoiseshell. I was delighted to see the ‘Horn’ fans (as PM Horner), but somewhat alarmed to find out that sometimes urine was used to make horn look like tortoiseshell!
We were very lucky to have the curator, Jacob Moss, talking to us on 12th June (on 5th June, we had the past curator, Mary Kitson). His knowledge of fans and their history, really made the collection come alive. The majority of fans were from 18th and 19th century Europe. At that time, fans were seen as accessories to beautiful clothes. Mrs Alexander (Director of the Fan Museum) took us around the current exhibition ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. She was a most inspiring guide. The fans there depicted everything from horses, dogs, cats and birds to insects and butterflies. Today, we would baulk at the idea of having a bird of paradise fan or a fan which had butterfly wings on it, but at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century they were considered high fashion.
With our minds still full of the glorious fans that we had seen, we went back to the Orangery for a delicious tea.
By Eleanor Moss (Horners).