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Antiques & Collecting: Silence, but the fan spoke volumes; Richard Edmonds bemoans the passing of the fan, once a symbol of wealth and power and essential for the secret language of love. Now elegant fans are hard to find.

Idid not find any fans during the last NEC antiques fair, although these days, you will sometimes find fans framed ready for hanging in custom made wall boxes.

But even these things seem to be in short supply, which makes me think that fans are slowly disappearing and staying in people's collections, making them in short supply like several other forms of antiques.

It was during the 18th century when the use of the fan had reached its height that poet John Gay wrote the following words:

"The Fan shall flutter in all female hands

And various fashions learn from various lands.

For this shall elephants their ivory shed;

And polished sticks the waving engine


His clouded mail the tortoise shall resign,

And round the rivet pearly circles shine.

On this shall Indians all their art employ,

and with gay colours stain the gawdy toy,

their paint shall here in wildest fancies


Their dress, their customs, their religions


So shall the British their minds improve.

And on the Fan to distant climates rove."

But the jewelled fantasies of the fashionable 18th century were only the tip of the iceberg since the fan has a long, long, history. It is very probable that cavemen waved leaves or bunches of grass to cool themselves in summer or keep away the flies.

However, many of the earlier references to fans emanate from China and so it is difficult to avoid the assumption that is held by most people which asserts that China was where the fan began using the shape and style with which we are familiar today.

The Ancient Egyptians had lavish fans which not only acted as a form of air-conditioning to cool the pharaoh but symbolised his authority.

In time of war Egyptian fan-bearers carried their ostrich feathers into battle using them as a standard to identify the troops (in a sense the fan became the precursor of the battle flag).

In times of peace the fan was used in the temple by the priests to swat away flies and other poisonous insects from the sacred offerings left by the faithful.

Egyptian fan bearers carried a certain distinction since the post was generally only given to persons of royal birth.

The fans once used by Tutankhamen were stunningly lavish objects as Howard Carter noted when he opened up Tutankhamen's tomb:

"We found between the third and fourth shrines, a pair of gorgeous flabella - the insignia of the royal princes.

"The one lying at the head at the innermost shrine and wrought in sheet gold, bears a charming historical scene of the young King Tutankhamen in his chariot hunting ostrich for feathers for the fans.

"The second fan larger and more resplendent than the first, was of ebony, overlaid with sheet gold and encrusted with turquoise, lapis-lazuli, and carnelian-coloured glass."

The fan is mentioned by the Greek playwright, Euripides, but Greek fan designs were more elegant than those of the Egyptians who were regarded by the Greeks as a barbarous people.

But there were nevertheless very beautiful fans in Egypt, many of them used in ceremonies by the priests of Isis. Some of them used rare woods and gold with fixed peacock fans which stood upright - nobody in the ancient world had learnt how to make folding fans.

If the Chinese were the first people to carve filigree ivory and sandalwood fans - and these things are still available today since they were made certainly well into the 20th century - then we should remember that it was the Japanese who were the first users of folding fans, basing the idea - at least, so legend says - on the structure of the wings of a bat.

The Japanese used fans for all kinds of social rituals, from tea drinking and theatre performance to martial arts displays. Exquisitely simple five-fold paper fans were originally used in Kyoto, for example, as miniature cake trays. After the guests had eaten their tiny biscuits or cakes, they would be invited by the host to fan themselves.

To be without a fan on such an occasion was regarded by the guests as a grave breach of social etiquette, while to use the fans noisily caused eyebrows to raise, since it was perceived as an act of vulgarity.

It was only courtesans who used folding fans; ordinary women used a flat circular variety made of paper. This social distinction between the tart and the "honest" woman was something which appeared in the 17th century in Stow's Chronicles which notes:

"Women's Maskes, Buskes, Muffes, Fanns, Periwigs and Bodkins were first devised and used in Italy by Curtezans and from thence they came to England about the time of the massacre of Paris."

By the time the Elizabethans were in power a new middle class was growing increasingly fond of luxury items. And so in a similar way to clothes, fine furnishings and jewellery, society began to attach a value to the fan and silver fan sticks were used as inflation hedges by young men at court.

Fans reached their highest point during the 18th century and they took all kinds of decoration where the leaf of the fan, whether printed or hand painted, could mark social events of all kinds from a music score to a balloon ascent or a revolution.

Both women and men carried fans at great social gatherings where dangerous liaisons were the order of the day for a bored society.

It was during this period that the language of the fan was invented, a kind of subversive semaphore which cut out speech.

In fact, you spoke with your fan and your eyes sending messages across a ballroom or a salon to a would-be suitor.

Here are some examples; carrying the fan in the left hand in front of the face meant "I am desirous of your acquaintance". Twirling the fan in the left hand meant "We are being watched". Letting it rest on the right cheek meant "Yes".

But on the left cheek it meant "No". If you touched the handle to your lips, you were in fact saying "Kiss me". Fanning very slowly conveyed the message "I am married . . ."

Considering all this we can realise it was not for nothing that the lady and her fan were adversaries to be reckoned with.

In 1711 Joseph Addison published a satire wherein he envisaged an academy for the training of young women in the use of a fan as a weapon, much as young men attended fencing schools.

"The fluttering of the fan", wrote Addison, "is the masterpiece of the whole exercise. I generally lay aside the dog days and hot times of summer for teaching this exercise, for as soon as I pronounce 'flutter your fans', the place is filled with gentle breezes such as are refreshing in summer."

As the 19th century came in, the fan became even more lavish with carved and gilded mother-of-pearl sticks and guards, and with the leaves often made of lace or hand painted on silk or a material known as chicken skin.

The famous name to look out for from this period is Duvellroy, who also made beautiful boxes to contain the fans he sold at great expense in his Paris and London showrooms.

After the First World War, women, who had fought the police as suffragettes, and acted as ambulance and bus drivers, and had made munitions in factories, had little use for fans.

By the early 1920s they had shingled their hair, hitched up their skirts and were dancing the charleston at Deauville.

Their fans, clutched in little white hands with pointed red-lacquered nails, were generally a single ostrich plume in a colour to match their dress and fitted into a gold stick.

There were also advertising fans which were given away for nothing at popular restaurants, theatres or nightclubs. I saw some of these fans recently and they were around pounds 85.

By the 1960s people could no longer find a fan restorer and if there was damage you really just had to get on with it.

Nowadays, of course, we live in a vulgar society and no one makes fans any longer and so we have to look to the sale rooms or the posh antique fairs to find for us what was once plentiful enough.

"An antique fan, opening and closing in the twilight, reminds us of a time long gone," said the poet, to which one can only give a heartfelt Amen.
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Author:Edmonds, Richard
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 29, 2000
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