The Fan Museum
12 Crooms Hill
Greenwich SE10 8ER
We have had quite a serious and warlike time recently, so it was with great pleasure that Mary, Linda and I met outside the Fan Museum for a bit of delicacy and elegance. The Museum is housed in two Georgian terrace houses, and was charming in every way. The people on reception were informative and friendly (and National Trust members get a serious discount!) The Fan Makers have had guild status since the early 18th century, and exhibitions have played a part in their history from the start. In France, there were different guilds for the makers of different components. The Fan Museum itself is the outcome of generous patronage by Dickie and Helen Alexander, the former head of Securicor and his wife, whose portrait hangs in one of the downstairs rooms.
The street sign of a Japanese fan maker marks the doorway to the shop, but we ignored the retail opportunities for the moment, while learning the names for the different parts of the fan (leaf, ribs, guard and sticks) and then examining the detailed displays. There were pictures of Indian fixed fans, punkahs, and also examples of Malaysian and Sri Lankan fans. A round fixed fan is called a 'cockade fan' by the way. But the French and other European fans are the real treasures. Ivory is now unacceptable; but when you see how finely and delicately it can be carved, you can understand why craft workers loved it so much. Apparently (don't read this next phrase, Sophie) hippopotamus teeth were also used. There were examples of mother-of -pearl and tortoiseshell fans.
Some of the leaves (see, we had read the information about components of the fan) were mounted as pictures on the wall. One was by Gaugin, and one by Sickert: an illustration of the music hall song 'the boy I love is up in the gallery'. The ground floor also had modern electric fans, of the Xpellair variety and a modern Dyson bladeless fan.
On the way upstairs (proper carpet! we liked that) we passed fans made for the 1878 Paris Exhibition as well as early 18th century Japanese fans.
The lady at the entrance had explained that, because of the fragility and light sensitivity of the Collection, the Museum has changing exhibitions, and the current one is 'Visions of Beauty'. We have seldom come across a more appropriate name for an Exhibition. Many of these fans were from the early 18th century, with mother-of-pearl or ivory sticks, often with extra embellishments in silver. We learned that the reverse of the leaf (which faces the user) would also have a design on it, though usually simpler than the 'public' face.
As a lifelong reader of Georgette Heyer, I had always been puzzled by the concept of a 'chicken skin' fan, but we now know that this is a very fine form of kid. One of these had a picture of Bacchus and Ariadne by Guido Reni: the painting was sold by Henrietta Maria to raise money for her husband Charles I in the Civil War, but he fan still exists.
There were fans with recognisable people (the mistresses of French Kings, for example) and one of two actors, surrounded by their five children; the rest of the leaf had scenes from various productions.
We were interested to see a couple of 'eventails a necessaire': fans which also contained smelling salts, rouge, sewing kits and so on. Some of these were from the 18th century but there was also an art deco one in celluloid with a tiny powder compact in the handle.
We nowadays associate Rimmel with cosmetics, but they too were fan makers in the 19th century, and one of their fans (with perfume bottle) was reviewed in the Hairdressers Journal of 1860.
The Exhibition extends into the 20th century, with a group of wooden fans, using pretty ladies to advertise various products: a forerunner, we supposed, of promotional calendars.
We then went down into the shop, which is very reasonably priced and has some lovely things in it, and also made use of the award winning loos. We cannot, of course, speak for the Gents, but the Ladies had fan shaped soap in a fan shaped dish, a flower arrangement and a comfy chair in case of need. On the back of each door was the Grand Magazine's 1760 encomium in praise of fans.
All in all, this is a museum which we warmly recommend: very cheering on a soggy November day.