Nowadays we express ourselves through our phones, our designer wear and the headphones we sport. In the 18th century, the tool of expression for ladies was the fan. This object wasn’t just something to hide behind; a snap or a gentle tap both had clear meanings.
Art curator and historian Monserrat Pis Marcos from The Holburne Museum gives us some insights into the fan culture and describes an example from the Holburne’s collection depicting Beau Nash in North Parade.
The 18th century witnessed an
exponential rise in the popularity of fans across Europe. Folding fans – as
opposed to rigid, non-collapsible fans – gradually diversified their variety,
ranging from lavishly painted and jewelled goods to essential, functional
accessories intended for everyday use. The introduction in the 1720s of
printing techniques to manufacture fan leaves, coupled with the use of cheaper
materials for the sticks, allowed for an increase in the production at
competitive prices, making the item accessible to a wider pool of customers.
Complementary to their role as fashion statements,
fans were often gifted to celebrate special occasions such as weddings or
births – and even deaths! They were also produced to commemorate significant social
or political events. Fans with topographical views such as this one appeared in
England in the 1740s and found a receptive audience in cities like Bath, where
they were sold as souvenirs.
Although fans were first and foremost designed to
regulate air temperature, they soon acquired additional purposes. It has been
suggested that they prevented cheeks from blushing and preserved a lady’s make
up from running when exposed to a heat source. Their role in courtship and
flirting was also commonly acknowledged. These multiple uses of fans were
recorded, often humorously, in written sources throughout the 18th
century, as in Air XIII of the comic opera The Capricious Lovers (1764)
by Robert Lloyd:
For various purpose serves the fan, As thus — a decent blind, Between the sticks to peep at man, Nor yet betray your mind. Each action has a meaning plain, Resentment’s in the snap, A flirt expresses strong disdain, Consent a gentle tap. All passions will the fan disclose, All modes of female art, And to advantage sweetly shews The hand if not the heart, ‘Tis folly’s scepter first designed By love’s capricious boy, Who knows how lightly all mankind Are govern’d by a toy.
This fan leaf with a chinoiserie border shows a
view of the North Parade in Bath, which was built by John Wood the Elder between
1740 and 1743. Various figures are promenading in a square bordered by stone
terraces on one side and a balustrade on the other. In the foreground, in the
bottom right, a line of sedan chairs and their chairmen are waiting outside of
the Lower Assembly Rooms – the building with the round windows. In the centre,
two gentlemen meet. One of them has removed his white hat in order to greet the
other. This distinctive element, as well as the lack of a wig, identifies the
gentleman as Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, the Master of Ceremonies.
Richard Nash (1674–1762) was one of the most
influential figures in the consolidation of Bath as a popular spa. Born in
Wales, Nash moved to Bath in 1705 and quickly succeeded the previous Master of
Ceremonies. During his tenure he promoted the construction of a new Assembly
House and was instrumental in engaging John Wood as the architect of some of
Bath’s most significant buildings. He had a remarkable impact on many aspects
of the city’s daily life, from establishing the starting time and the duration
of balls – from 6 to 11pm sharp – to mediating between parties in a dispute.
Between the 1720s and 1790s, Bath grew rapidly
from a medieval market town into a city of elegant stone squares and terraces,
and its buildings became an inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists. This
fan was painted by Thomas Loggon. He was born in Great Grimbsy in 1706 and
started his career in London as the dwarf for the Prince and Princess of Wales.
In the 1730s he moved to Bath, where he made a living by painting fans with
topographical views of the city under the commercial name ‘The Little Fanmaker’.
He also ran a ladies’ tearoom and a china shop.
The Holburne Museum possesses another fan attributed to the same artist, dated c.1750 and depicting Harrison Walk, also in Bath. There are around 30 fans in the museum’s collection, dated between the mid-18th century and the late 19th century.