London Museum Challenge #8: The Fan Museum

April 10, 2013 § 4 Comments

I have a hopeless weakness for odd little museums devoted to a single type of object. (Apparently this is a sign of incurable curator-itis. Not that I wish to be cured.) However, before last week I also didn’t have any particular knowledge of, or interest in, the history of fans and fan-making. So when I stepped off the DLR on a rare sunny day in Greenwich and struck off toward the Fan Museum, I didn’t quite know what to expect.

Reader, I liked it. The setting isn’t the least of its charms – the museum occupies one house in a perfect Georgian terrace on a quiet street. The house at the opposite end of the terrace happens to have been Daniel Day-Lewis’s childhood home (at least, so I assume from the blue plaque designating it as the home of ‘C Day-Lewis, poet laureate’ – you only get a blue plaque if you’re both illustrious and dead, so I very much hope Daniel won’t be getting his own for a long time).

Paul Gauguin, Landscape in Martinique, c. 1881

The museum itself only occupies four rooms (five if you count the shop). The first room is hung with fan leaves that have been unfolded and framed like paintings, which, of course, is exactly what they are. The second, and larger, of the two rooms on the ground floor explains that materials and manufacture of fans.  (One unexpected connection between fans and printmaking – many of the designs were taken from engravings.) It also holds two of the gems of the museum’s collection, fans painted by Gauguin (a Martinique landscape) and Sickert (a music hall scene). (Gauguin and Sickert were only two of a surprisingly large number of 19th-century avant-garde artists who did fan paintings – now there’s an interesting exhibition idea.) The labels were informative but decidedly quirky – also liberal in their use of exclamation marks. This is something that would drive me mad if I found it in a big national museum but it somehow seemed completely appropriate for a place like the Fan Museum.

The upper floor holds changing exhibitions; the current one is devoted to the fan in Europe, 1800-1850. Suffice it to say I never thought looking at two rooms packed to the gills with fans (I didn’t count, but I would guess that there were about 200) would be such an enchanting experience, but… it was. My favourites were the brisé fans (those whose sticks form the fan, without a leaf), whose carving and decoration was so delicate that it seemed the work of fairies. (Although the labels said little about the fan makers themselves, I found myself wondering whether blindness was the main occupational hazard of the trade.) By the time I’d been round both rooms, I was dazzled – no other way to describe it.

French chinoiserie brisé fan (c. 1830)

The only part of the experience I missed was tea in the orangery – when I poked my head in, I was told that they wouldn’t start serving for another half hour. As it was cold and the orangery felt draughty, I decided to save it for another time.

And I do hope there is another time.

Tally: 8 down, 15 to go


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