The collecting of antique fans is one of the most satisfying of hobbies, for a small collection of fans can comprise a museum in miniature. Specimens covering the period from the 16th century, when fans were first introduced into Europe from the East, up to Edwardian days include the work of carvers in ivory and wood, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl; the silversmith, the painter, the printer, the lace-maker, and the embroideress in sequins and silk.
Pictured: A hand-painted and ivory fan, 18th century The sticks and guards pierced and gilded, the hand-painted leaf depicting figures in a rural scene, bordered with flowers, boxed, 26.5cm. Sold at Bonhams, Knowle, Dec 2011 for £312. Image Copyright Bonhams.
Apart from its exquisite craftsmanship, the fan is inextricably tied up with the history of the country of its origin — especially in the case of France and England. Each period of history brought its own influence in costume and that included fans, since they were an important accessory of dress. Fans made for the ladies of the Court of the French King Louis XV were elaborately carved and of great richness. With the accession of Louis XVI there was greater restraint though still very elegant and costly fans were in great demand.
The French Revolution brought the French fan trade near to disaster. With the Court gone, their wealthy clients having fled the country or been left penniless, many master fan-makers fled, too, to set up in business in England.
Pictured: Antique Fans. Sold at Bonhams, Los Angeles,Jan 2009 for $195. Image Copyright Bonhams.
The fan of the Empire period is as distinctive as those of the two Louis. Small — it rarely exceeds seven inches in length — it has an exceptionally broad leaf, usually made of some textile material, trimmed with sequins in many shapes — crescents, stars, flowers, leaves. The sequin embroidery of the period is particularly intricate.
There are fans of heavy satin in sombre colours, breathing Victorianism; dainty, pretty bits of nonsense of lace and mother-of-pearl, as attractive and gay as the Edwardian ladies who used them.
Pictured: A rare Recovery of George III from Illness Fan. Many 18th-century fans commemorated important events. They marked the births, marriages and deaths of well-known people, royal occasions or major social events. This fan celebrates George III’s recovery from illness in 1789. The simple, emblematic design includes the rose and thistle, symbolising the Union of Scotland and England by Act of Parliament in 1707. Above are the words, ‘Health is restored to ONE and happiness to Millions’. The fan may have been designed for ladies to carry at the great ball given at Court in 1789 to celebrate the king’s recovery. Image from the V&A Collections. For more information visit https://collections.vam.ac.uk/ © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
To the serious collector the less beautiful fans with printed leaves are amongst the most interesting. Sticks and guards are simple, often of plain, undecorated wood. It is in the paper leaf that the interest lies. Many will be found to bear the name of the publisher in accordance with an Act of 1735. Many of these fans provide an interesting picture of the contemporary social and historical scene. Some record royal betrothals and marriages; occasions of national mourning or joy. A special fan was issued to express the joy of the nation on the recovery of George 111 in 1789. The Naval Fan of 1801 was published to celebrate the naval victories of the Nile and Copenhagen.
There were opera and theatre fans, showing the arrangement of boxes and seats. There is no end to the subjects depicted on these fans. The collector in his search may not find the quest an easy one. Fans are such delicate, fragile things, not made for long life. It is surprising that so many have survived for two hundred and more years in perfect condition. But if the search is long and hard, results when they do come are infinitely rewarding.
Pictured: Three late 18th/early 19th century fans. All with ivory sticks and handpainted paper leaves, one with painted sticks and leaf depicting a couple in a rural scene; one Canton export fan with ornately carved and pierced sticks and leaf depicting a European scene with Chinese influences; the third with plain sticks and leaf depicting a classical scene. Sold for £624 at Bonhams, Knowle, April 2011. Image Copyright Bonhams.
There is a huge variety in fans: from fans of fabulous beauty, finely painted leaves on beautifully carved and gilded sticks, from the eighteenth century; feather fans vary from a tiny one of tortoiseshell edged with peacock’s feathers to a large screen-type fan in heart shape, composed entirely of feathers, decorated with sprays of roses (also made of feathers) and a stuffed humming bird. The first is from Vienna, the latter from Rio de Janeiro. Then there is beautiful Brussels lace in a design of flowers on sticks of honey-coloured pearl ; ivory finely carved in China, so delicate that it looks like frozen lace; a simple mourning fan of black paper on ebony sticks, but of special interest because it is telescopic, sliding up and down on its sticks, to become small enough to fit into the reticule, the handbag of ladies of its period — the early nineteenth century.
A collection of antique fans would not really be complete without a brisé fan which were the work of the brothers Martin, who worked in Paris from the early to the mid-eighteenth century. These were particularly fashionable during the late Georgian and Regency periods. The brisé fan has wider sticks that overlap when open and are joined at the top by a ribbon or thread creating an effect similar to the pleated leaf of the folding fan. The Vernis Martin process of applying a fine colourless varnish to their work died with the brothers.
Pictured: Four Chinese late 18th/early 19th century brisé fans ncluding a late 18th century example featuring a central swagged shield cartouche and two circular vignettes and a swagged design crossing all sticks, 21cm; two wedge-shaped fans, each featuring three roundels and floral designs, both 19cm; and a goose feather fan with ivory guards and sticks featuring scenes of Chinese life, 28cm. Sold for £3,600 at Bonhams, Knowle, April 2011. Image Copyright Bonhams.
Antique fan collecting is an exciting hobby, and as a collectable item the fan has the advantage of occupying little space and its varied types make it a source of infinite and unending pleasure.