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The history of fans

History of Fans

Explore 3,000 years of fan making history

Few art forms combine functional, ceremonial and decorative uses as elegantly as the fan. Fewer still can match such diversity with a history stretching back at least 3,000 years.

Early History

Pictorial records showing some of the earliest fans date from around 3000 BC and there is evidence that the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans all used fans as cooling and ceremonial devices, while Chinese literary sources associate the fan with ancient mythical and historical characters.

Early fans were all of the fixed type, and the folding fan does not appear either in the East or the West until relatively late in its history.

The first European folding fans were inspired by and copied from prototypes brought in to Europe by merchant traders and the religious orders who had set up colonies along the coasts of China and even Japan. These early fans were reserved for Royalty and the nobility and, as expensive toys, they were regarded as a status symbol. While their montures (i.e. sticks and guards) were made from materials such as ivory, mother of pearl and tortoiseshell, often carved and pierced and ornamented with silver, gold and precious stones, the leaves were well painted by craftsmen who gradually amalgamated into guilds such as The Worshipful Company of Fan Makers.

Fans in the Dark Ages

Flabella, such as the flabellum of Monza – dating from the VI century, and also known as ‘Queen Theodolinda’s fan – were used by the Church as liturgical objects throughout the so-called Dark Ages. The Chinese and Japanese also used fans from a very early date. In China, the screen fan or pien-mien was the type most frequently used in early times. Chinese cultural influences were exported to Japan by way of Korea but evidence suggests that conversely, the folding fan came to China from Japan.

The development of fans in Europe from early Christian times and into the Middle Ages was influenced by contact with other civilizations. Rare illustrations in manuscripts show that fans differed in shape, size and material and that their origins were equally varied. Not only did fans find their origins in countries along the Spice Routes, but the Crusades brought Islamic influences to Western Europe.

Fans in the Seventeenth Century

Fixed fans and folding fans can be seen in portraits of ladies throughout the seventeenth century, a crucial time in the development of the folding fan in Europe. In the earlier part of the century, fixed fans, consisting of feathers set into a handle of varying splendour, were the norm. As the century progressed, folding fans gained in popularity until, by the end of the century, they had completely superseded fixed fans. It is also interesting to note that while folding fans can be seen in the hands of royalty and grand ladies, fixed feather fans were used by the “bourgeoisie” or less well-off.

Fans in the Eighteenth Century

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, folding fans were being made throughout Europe while increasing numbers were being imported from the Far East by the thriving East India Companies of Holland, France and England in particular. The eighteenth century also saw the development of the printed fan: cheaper to manufacture and therefore cheaper to purchase, fans were suddenly available to a much wider audience than had previously been the case.

Equally, the variety of subjects depicted on fan leaves became increasingly varied. From the earlier biblical illustrations such as ‘Moses Striking the Rock’ (by Gamble) and a ‘Walk by the River’ (by Chassereau), to end of the century subjects such as the ‘Trial of Warren Hastings’ and ‘How to Play Whist and not lose your Temper!’, themes had shifted to reflect contemporary preoccupations and pastimes as opposed to the traditional allegories of the old testament.

Fans in the Nineteenth Century

The political turmoil that marked the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries meant that fans became “less work intensive” and small brisé fans regained popularity while printed fans of every kind were available to most classes. At the same time, fans from China, made specifically for the export market, adapted to the smaller format that had become popular in the West.

Arguably, the most lavish fans date from the second half of the nineteenth century. The artists who painted these fans were often fashionable painters who signed their work – as did the tabletiers who carved the magnificent sets of sticks and guards (montures). Great maisons sprang up in Paris, which had become the epicentre for the manufacture of fine quality fans. These maisons would become bywords for the creation and distribution of objets de luxe, furnishing royalty and the upper echelons of polite society with fans of particular quality.

The latter part of the nineteenth century also ushered in one of history’s greatest artistic movements: Impressionism. Many of the leading Impressionists – and indeed Post-Impressionists – painted fan leaves, the compositions of which were frequently inspired by Japanese art and culture, which continued to shape and inform art and design in the West.

Fans in the Twentieth Century

Fans followed the trends of the twentieth century with a plethora of advertising fans, first in the “Art Nouveau” style – popular at the turn of the century – and then reflecting the impact of the Ballet Russes, followed by “Art Deco” and even the growing popularity of photography. For high society, feather fans were de rigueur at the very same time that enormous ostrich plumed fans discreetly covered the stars of the Moulin Rouge!

Fans in the Twenty-First Century

Whilst the fan is no longer the ‘must-have’ accessory of previous times, commemorative fans celebrating occasions such as royal weddings continue to be made, while a unique ‘haute couture’ production in France is particularly noteworthy. Possibly, the most talented in this specialist field being Sylvain Le Guen, whose work The Fan Museum showcased in the exhibition, ‘Air à la Mode’ (2 August 2011 – 13 November 2011).

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Free Entry for…

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