Monday, November 30, 2020

A Flutter on Fans...

Walking around the back streets in the city, I came across the display window of a little antique shop. Les antiquaires must surely be leading a hard existence ; their wares appearing to attract so little curiosity and custom. The eyes of the world are rivetted on the latest smart and virtual universe that effortfulessly opens itself up to the user. Why indeed bother with the remains of long-gone eras that seem to have minimal relevance today, and even less so with the current health issue ? As I peered in at the antiques that had once been fabric and ornamentation to the lives of beings decades and even centuries ago, I felt rather sad. The majority of these would possibly find little use today, accustomed as we are to time and labour-saving devices that can easily be replaced and forgotten, financial means permitting. Every aspect of our practical lives and the myriad of pleasure-seeking concerns for our leisure time are catered for by objects and gadgets that can be disposed of when obsolete or simply no longer in line with our latest taste or expectations. Few appear to have a tale to tell and in the process we too seem to have little to say, despite all our Facebook friends, ‘likes’, chat and sharing. Right now our tech-reliant lives seem to be turning us into clones and drones, caught in a monotonous yet hyperactive routine of staring and squinting at screens throughout the day. It is quite a relief to escape from the virtual world of communication to return to a contemplative past version of the real one !
Amongst the array of articles, was a disparate collection of folding, hand-held fans – heaped together somewhat unceremoniously. These looked quite forlorn, with all their faded, worn and torn former finery laid out in the bright, unforgiving shop lights yet forever over-looked and neglected, destined for oblivion. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I always do with antique pieces, who had once owned these articles. Which woman had once flicked and fluttered these elegant ‘dress’ objects, and in which ceremonious circumstances ? Again, as always, I wondered what these individuals would think of the objects now used in place of these redundant ones. How would they view our lives and us ? The sophisication of today’s technology is such that our ancestors, however recent, would have no comprehension of our society – structure, function, values and behaviour. Our lifestyles would surely baffle them, just as they are starting to perplex me.
Well, there was something calming about looking at these fans, with the simplicity of their design and function yet elegance in their form and embellishment. What could each one and every one of these reveal of its unique path towards the present and of its previous owner(s) ? Naturally, the primary raison d’être of the fan is functional ; flicking away troublesome insects, shielding the owner from the fireside heat or blazing sun and above all, generating a current of air for cooling purposes. However, from its origins in the Far East in the 7th century, the fan assumed other roles once it had made its way to Europe in the 15th century via Portuguese traders. The Spanish, French and English courts adopted this instrument not only as a distinguishing mark of elegance – but also one used to convey illicit messages when the spoken word was silenced by courtly etiquette. Indeed a richly-decorated fan was proof of class, but could be wielded as a wand - changing the social situation of its owner through the establishment of an opportunistic relationship with a man of stature, via the deft switch of this object. Paris and Versailles became the focal point for all that was fashionable and luxurious in the late 17th century and in 1673, an Association de Eventaillistes was formed with the king as its patron. Although China and Japan had been the primary source of many fans, the sophisticated French fan artisans provided fine quality goods.
The emmigration of French Protestants to neighbouring countries of the same religious denomination - England, Holland and Prussia - meant that the skill of such artisans was spread across Europe. French fans had been imported to England ever since the Elizabeth era, but increasing numbers of English craftsman catered for the growing demand for folding fans, with the Guild of Fan Makers established in England in the early 17th century. No longer the preserve of the wealthy classes alone, the use of l’éventail had trickled down the social classes to become mainstream in Europe and by the 18th century, it was in its golden age. Great fan manufacturers, largely set up in Paris, feed this desire for lavishly ornate fans – the Duvelleroy establishment, founded in the 19th century, still exists today. Despite the fan losing favour in the aftermath of the French Revolution years, demand for the accessory ‘Made in France’ was such in South America that Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy set up his business. Fans were works of art in their own right and both the artisans who painted them and the tabletiers who carved the rods and montures frequently signed their pieces, as would a painter his framed painting. Through displaying his work in the Great Exhibitions, Duvelleroy ensured the recognition of the fan as an art form, and was himself awarded a prize medal at The Crystal Palace in 1851.
The role of the fan was such that is the early 18th century a satirical article was published in The Spectator, the periodical published daily to offer the enlightened British public comments on manners, morals and literature. Therein the politician Joseph Addison sought to instruct ladies in the proper employ of the fan in order that they « may be entire mistresses of the weapon which they bear ». Indeed, in the hunt for an elligible gentleman to marry or ‘keep’ them « Women are armed with fans as men with swords and sometimes do more execution with them ». Bearing their tool of seduction in auspicious social occasions, the well-practiced female could ensnare a male using her feminine charms. Later, poet John Winstanley wrote : In Love’s soft Reign, the Sceptre is the Fan, Woman is the Sovereign, and the Subject Man. As part of the tactics for enticement, the ‘communication’ hand-held fan was designed towards the end of the century. This gave ladies instructions on its correct usage, with details printed on the Fanology or the Ladies Conversation Fan itself, whilst the Ladies Telegraph, for « Corresponding at a Distance » bore twenty-six divisions on its leaf sections, corresponding to the letters of the alphabet. The latter must have been rather difficult to master by the female user, and its messages more than challenging for all but the most determined interlocutor, himself surely well-versed in the art! How far these devices were used to converse is not clear, but the simple, yet highly strategic positioning of a fan was thought to speak volumes in the game of seduction.
The Parisian fan-makers, Duvelleroy, assisted its 19th century female clientele by printing a glossary of fan gestures and positions with their meanings, claiming that this secret language of the fan was of early Spanish origin, drawn up by a certain Fenella. Naturally, there were variations in the messages encoded in these decorative elaborations of body language but the principle remained the same. So much so that in 1892 Oscar Wilde wrote Lady Windermere’s Fan with the main character marking out the cadence of the action with appropriate movements of this symbolic object and so underlining the high points of the play.
As any other accessory, changes in taste and usage were played out in the design and materials of the fan over the ages. The fontange folding fan had a rounded, arched ‘leaf’ with the height tapering down from the tall central part towards its ‘guards’ or master sticks. Favoured in the late 17th to early 18th century France, it was Inspired by the elaborate, towering coiffure of a certain Duchesse de Fontanges - one of Louis XIV’s mistresses. The brisé variety was another type of folding fan, but was composed of ribs/sticks and guards alone – no leaf - all supported by ribbon woven through or glued onto the slats and a pivot pin at the base. Closely related to the brisé fans were the Empire fans at the end of the 18th century. The brisé was, in principle, quite simple with its identical sticks, repeating a pattern or motif. Yet fashion dictated that these became more intricate, with detailed carvings, piercings and ornamentation, often creating lace-like effect. Materials used ranged from modest carved wood, perhaps clouté or burgauté with more lavish inlays, bone, horn, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, to ivory, precious metals and ostrich feathers.
The cockade fan followed, with its simple 360° design, with the handle formed by the extended guards. By the 1840s, folding fans had become more sophisticated with pleated leaves of satin, silk, organdi, or ‘peau de cygne’ (kid skin) often painted with themic scenes on the front (obverse), whilst decorative flowers dressed the reverse. Trimmings of lace and feathers., sequins, pearls and semi-precious stone became popular as fans grew as showpieces. The cabriolet fan, named in reference to the wheel of the horse-drawn carriage bore two, or possibly more concentric leaves, the one above the other. Tassels on the handle were equally ornate, and the whole structure of the fan could be used to conceal all manner of practical objects ! I did in fact get the chance to see just how diverse the world of the fan was when I visited the Muséé de l’Eventail in Paris about twenty years ago. It was truly marvellous – both in terms of the collection itself and the site itself – seeped in history so that I felt as if I had been plunged in another time.
Apparently the fans in the shop in town had all been part of an antique collection belonging to a woman who died earlier this year. Her relatives sold everything off as a job lot to the antiquaire. Just hearing that made me feel a little sad, but not for long as I decided to buy one of the fans myself. And so I am now the custodian of the beautiful black organdi/lace fan, free to invent its past in my present !

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