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7 July 2011 by Eleanor

Telescopic handheld fan

 Chinese Export Hand-held Fan

National Museums Liverpool’s conservation studios have been a hive of activity over the past few months, as conservators have been busy preparing objects for the new Museum of Liverpool, which opens in just 12 days’ time. 

Recently I have been lucky enough to conserve a number of handheld fans which will be exhibited in the new museum’s Global City gallery.  When I found out that I would be conserving fans, I expected to encounter paper and perhaps some plastic or wooden sticks, but I was in for a much bigger treat!  Lacquer, ivory, tortoiseshell, silk, feathers, gold pigment and mother of pearl were just some of the materials that I came across. 

One of my favourite fans is shown in the image above.  The fan dates from around 1840 -1880 and was exported from China for the European market.  The fan is known as an ‘applied faces’ fan, as the face of each figure depicted on the decorative leaf has been made from a thin piece of ivory.  These tiny ivory faces were then delicately painted and applied to the paper leaf with glue.  Even the figures’ clothes have been cut from decorative silk textiles and applied onto the surface.

The fan came into the organics conservation department for treatment as one of its black lacquered sticks had broken and many of the applied silk pieces had begun to fold and lift away.  Although the decoration of the fan is fascinating enough, it wasn’t until I looked even more closely that I found out its best kept secret! 

Whilst examining the fan I noticed that the lacquer sticks could be moved up and down slightly, creating a sliding motion.  Curiously the movement seemed to be purposeful, being part of the design rather than being caused by any faults or breaks.  I wondered… ‘Could this make it an extendable fan?!’ 

After carrying out some background research, my suspicions were confirmed and I discovered that the fan was indeed telescopic.  In the above image the fan is shown in its half-extended position.  However, the black lacquered sticks can be extended further by pulling them out from inside the paper leaf.  When opened this creates a large dramatic fan.  When the fan is no longer needed it can be folded up and the sticks cleverly pushed back inside the paper leaf to create a compact foldable fan.  In its compact position the fan is perfect for carrying around and would take up far less room in a handbag!

Unfortunately the action of extending and retracting the sticks today would place too much stress on the materials, which are now around 170 years old.  But nevertheless, what a fantastic design!  You can see the fan in the new Museum of Liverpool, which opens on Tuesday 19 July 2011.

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