Wednesday, 1 February 2012


I recently went with Steve Akhurst, Chairman of the Plastics Historical Society, to visit the Fan Museum, Greenwich, London. It is the first and only museum in the world devoted in its entirety to all aspects of the ancient art and craft of the fan. The bulk of its collection consists of folding fans but includes also all kinds of fans including air conditioning fans and fan heaters. Even the Dyson Cooler with its air multiplier technology is represented.

The current exhibition shows the sumptuous fans of Felix Alexandre, fanmaker to the courts of Europe, including to Queen Victoria. The exhibition includes two fans from the Royal Collection and many others with elaborately carved ivory, engraved mother of pearl, and  richly gilded montures, bedecked with precious jewels.

The next exhibition, Fans in the Age of Plastics, will be a contrast in concept if not so very different in terms of visual appeal. Although mass-produced there is immense variety on a theme as shown in these four fans each held in the same mount bearing a cats head and formed in identical moulds. The one on the left is decorated by hand,  the next one looks like it is made of natural tortoiseshell, another bears a printed advertisement for the hotel where it will have been given away, and another is a rich amber with a printed scallop pattern.

We were there to help with identification of the plastics. The exhibition begins with 'nature's own' thermoplastics: tortoiseshell and horn. There follow a large number of fans made from cellulose nitrate in imitation of these natural materials. Today, even the most perceptive of gazes can be deceived by fine-quality imitations. The 1920s example illustrated has combined the function of the fan with a make-up box- note the powder and lipstick compartments and the mirror in its lid.

The biggest challenge from the materials used point of view were the post World War 2 fans.  We thought that most of them were probably made of a variety of polystyrenes.

Also featured in the exhibition will be a number of pocket-size mechanical fans dating from the first half of the 20th century. This British example, also made of cellulose nitrate,  marketed itself as 'as dainty as a butterfly's wing'. These functional yet appealing 'air agitating' devices demonstrate that even the ancient craft of fan-making - virtually unchanged since the 17th century- could not escape the 20th century's ceaseless desire to innovate in the production of all manner of consumer goods.

The exhibition is on from Wednesday 29 February to Sunday 3 June 2012. For more information go to: There is a wonderful cafe-come-shop across the road that serves a variety of different kinds of sausages with mixed root mash. Don't miss the exhibition or the cafe!

Susan Lambert (Head of MoDiP)

No comments:

Post a Comment