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Fanning the Senses - Fan Museum (preview)

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AN EXHIBITION exploring the fascinating parallels between perfume and fans, their historic symbolism and enduring appeal as indicators of status and wealth, Fanning the Senses, is on display at The Fan Museum until July 22, 2007.

With fans depicted in the carved reliefs of ancient Egypt and perfume receptacles discovered among the many possessions entombed with Pharaohs, it’s obvious that both fans and perfumes have been around for a very long time.

Over the years, these scented oils and their precious ingredients, as well as fans and other prized cargoes, found their way to Europe where they received a rapturous welcome from a curious and enthusiastic public.

Fanning the Senses includes just over 100 fans with floral motifs of every kind from Europe and Asia, and explores how flowers have been used to inspire decorative motifs and to provide alluring scents to a lady’s toilette. Whether worn directly as a corsage or combined with essence to create perfume, flowers have enduring associations with femininity and beauty.

From the seventeenth century onwards, fans were often decorated with copies of classical paintings. This meant that when a lady opened her fan, she presented the viewer with mythological and historical scenes, thereby indicating her educated status.

However, for her own eyes the reverse of the fan would show a wonderful profusion of flowers. Fashionable tulips took pride of place beside the rose, the flower of Venus, goddess of Love. But hyacinths, jasmine and carnations were also popular, nowhere more so than at the court of Louis XIV.

In the eighteenth century, Madame de Pompadour and later Queen Marie-Antoinette, both dictated fashion at Versailles; and their style choices inspired many imitations. In fact, Marie-Antoinette had a personal perfumer – Jean-Louis Fargeon – and he created bespoke scents to reflect her moods and personality.

However, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century and in particular the emergence of the Art Nouveau style, that the great “flowering” fans appeared – fans decorated with life-size blooms of botanical precision and consummate art.

Not only that, as the trade exchange with the East increased, it is likely that the artists and craftsmen from Europe were influenced and inspired by the importance of flowers in Japanese culture, and the more consistent way of using flowers in art in China.

Pavot Ancien

Fans and fragrances do, in fact, have much in common. Both have been used for love and for war, as gifts and for ceremonials, to flirt, seduce and conquer, and as a status symbol while their expense sustained their exclusivity. They were both symbols of luxury and sophistication, and evocative of the great journeys around the globe when exotic spices, scents, and flavours were brought back from foreign climes.

It is also striking that at the beginning of the 20th century when it became more affordable to print and make fans, perfumers very often used fans as advertising giveaways to present a new fragrance to the press or to their best clients.

A few of these advertising fans will be shown within the exhibition, together with bottles of scent generously lent by the best Perfume Houses (Christian Dior, Bourjois, Penhaligon’s, Guerlain, Roger and Gallet, Floris and Angela Flanders), which to this day carry on the long standing tradition of creating elegance and sophistication and which use the best techniques to extract the most subtle and refined fragrances from flowers.

Venue: The Fan Museum, 12 Crooms Hill, Greenwich, London, SE10 8ER.

Telephone: 020 8305 1441.

Times: Tuesday to Saturday – 11am to 5pm, Sunday – 12noon to 5pm.

Admission: £4 adults, £3 concessions, free for seniors and disabled on Tuesdays from 2 to 5pm (except groups), free for children under 7.