© Worthing Museum - 'Fans Unfolded' exhibition text
My ideas regarding fans and the making of this particular one had begun to take form even before the research trip I made to The Fan Museum, Greenwich in the late spring of 2018 (please see: https://stephaniesmart.wixsite.com/stephaniesmart/single-post/2018/06/13/The-Fan-Museum---research-visit---fans) and likewise before I later attended the exhibition titled 'Fans Unfolded,' at Worthing Museum. They had begun in fact on a visit to Worthing Museum I'd made to look around the museum for the first time at the end of the previous year, when I'd spotted their gallery text showing 'The Language of Flowers' (see below). That flowers had once each been meant to mean something specific and used like a language was an idea I'd heard of before but not worked with.
I'd also heard of something similar regarding fans, that is, concerning the idea that holding one in a certain position had been meant to symbolise something and thereby pass on a message.
Mary Kitson, historian at The Fan Museum has assured me that this idea is a myth, a fact backed up by Sotheby's here: https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-secret-language-of-fans but, as they state, this myth is a persistent one. And I was to hear it asked about by a contemporary audience member in a talk Mary gave about fans in October 2019.
Whatever the truth of the belief in such attributions the idea of fans and flowers and meaning were to become intertwined in my mind.
© Worthing Museum
The third point of the triangle I didn't know I was forming came from reading a particular letter from the Bevan and Dewar collection held by The Regency Town House. In fact it was just the first few lines and the tone of the letter (what I read in and around the words) that put me in mind of the forget-me-not and saw me drawing all three ideas together.
"My dearest Richard,
I thank you for your letter, and assure you I had not, even in thought, once accused you of neglect, and tho’ I shall always take the greatest delight in receiving a letter from you, when you feel in a humour to chat with me freely yet I should be sorry to think that you were induced to give up a walk, or anything pleasant from the idea, that I should require you to be punctual in your replies to my epistles - I am too confident of your affection to believe you are unmindful of me, but..." http://www.rth.org.uk/collections/bevan-dewar-letters/letters/1820 (exact date unknown)
It reads to me as if the authoress (the identity of the sender is in fact lost but I imagine it to be a woman) might have been chastised in a previous letter, or has otherwise, through some more indirect language, assumed herself in trouble for implying he is forgetful of her. She reassures him of her belief in his constancy and yet I wonder if she isn't just as surely reassuring herself. And in so doing she is expresses a universal (across time as well, presumably, across continents) anxiety regarding the fragility of proffered affection and its sudden possible loss.
So the link with the forget-me-not that flower which, in comparison to those others on the list isn't suggestive of its attributed meaning but in fact absolutely blatant. Not only do the three words that form its name make its symbolic attribution clear but even the fact that are hyphenated illustrates the point, joining them inextricably and forever as if by a rope. No one receiving a bunch of forget-me-nots could be in any doubt of the inferred wish of the sender.
So, I imagine our anonymous letter writer, in the 1820s, looking up from the piece of paper she has on her writing desk, pen still in hand, at the bunch of tiny blue flowers she picked that morning; wondering at her own subconscious leanings, feeling some anxiety.
I began by drawing the flowers.
Having just been looking at Oriental fans, including many made for export (from around the same period as Richard's letter is believed to have been written) that glitter with gold beneath layers of lacquer I choose pink for the background because of its associations with love and my colour palette was set.
From Made in China, exhibition guide, The afn Museum, p160
The fan leaf proved to be the easy part, relatively speaking. Styling the sticks and guards appropriately was not so straight forward as these images of the three complete sets of each I made along the way attest.
In the end I chose to mimic forget-me-not leaves, painting them first green and then turning them back toward a mimicry of ivory or bone, leaving only a hint of green along the side of each. Applying the layer of tracing paper with that first part of the letter written as if in her hand served to mute the gold leaf and to half hide the flowers in a way that seemed to me suggestive of looking back at the emotions of a ghost.
This is one of the pieces in the collection where the manner of its display extends the symbolism, the hints of longing and of love felt but now lost in the mists of time, on display in the way that we tend to preserve and display history. I placed a copy of the three pages of the original letter beneath the fan, the whole in a museum style case, and made a single flower that would look as if it were growing (from amidst the sentiments expressed), but which remains trapped beneath a sheet of perspex unable to grow larger only to be peered at through a hole in the paper.
The fan is framed by a border of blue the same colour as it's lacy edging and its front guard has flowers made of papiér mache.
And beside the fan lies that bunch of forget-me-nots which I imagined my letter writer might have placed, in a small glass vase, on her writing desk. Reassuringly pretty whilst yet worryingly seeking not to be forgotten.
Another interesting post concerning fans in the Regency is:
The exhibition of The Regency Wardrobe collection has been postponed due to Coronavirus as soon as the collection has been shown more images of all the pieces will be made visible on stephaniesmart.net
This project is being supported by:
Arts Council England, The Textile Society and Great Art