Frank Barraclough, current Chairman of the OAICC, wrote a
well-researched two-page article in the OAICC Newsletter, January 2000, issue no. 70,
which reviews this fascinating subject. The majority of this article has been
reproduced below, with his kind permission. In addition Frank assisted with many
of the detailed descriptions for the images on the slideshow. We are grateful
for his experience and knowledge.
Of all the various types of optical objects known to exist,
far and away the most magnificent and attractive are the optical fans. Fewer
than a couple hundred are known. Each has its own individualized beautiful style
and elegant character and each is an exquisite example of the fan-makers’
Fans, as cooling aids and ceremonial devices had been in use
for thousands of years, but the folding fan was a much later development
spreading from Europe to China. In many countries fans became symbols of class,
importance, and fashion. Whilst imported Chinese fans were ever popular, a major
fan-making industry developed in Europe in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries,
producing many beautiful and elaborate works of art. No lady of distinction
would be seen without one and they were also used by men! Galileo had produced
his first telescope in 1609 and during the next two centuries, small telescopes
or spyglasses began to be produced in considerable numbers for personal use,
some to aid the very popular pastime of watching others, and also, incidentally,
to help short-sighted people. Although spectacles with side arms had been
invented in the late 1720s, they had not yet become generally popular for
distance use, spyglasses still being preferred by many. Public outcry against
blatant voyeurism with spyglasses led to attempts to make them less conspicuous
by miniaturizing them and also by concealing them (ingeniously) in scent
bottles, snuffboxes, other trinkets, and, of course, fans. The fan with a tiny
spyglass built into its center gave the aristocratic lady the opportunity to
coyly and inconspicuously hide her face behind her fan while at the same time
have a shrewd idea of all that was going on around her.
There are two main types of fans, the leaf and the brise, and
two main shapes, the semi-circle and the cockade. The more general type has a
semi-circular leaf, made of silk or chicken skin or lace or paper, often
beautifully painted or printed or embroidered. The leaf is fixed directly on to
the sticks (guards), which radiate from a central pivot. The two outer sticks or
guards are usually thicker and are often ornately decorated. The sticks can be
of many materials but are frequently of horn, ivory, bone, tortoiseshell or
wood. The second type is the brise (“broken”) fan, made up of broad, individual,
carved or pierced sticks, which together form the fan and are linked together by
a ribbon. Again various materials were used. Both leaf and brise fans usually
open out to about 160 degrees. However, a cockade fan, which can be leaf but
more usually brise, opens out to 360 degrees.
Spyhole fans had been made for some time, with peep holes of
gauze or mica worked into the pattern on the leaf of the fan or spyholes drilled
into the sticks and guardsticks. Mirrors had also been mounted on the guard
sticks. The lady could thus preserve her modesty by covering her eyes with a fan
whilst still being able to see anything that she wanted to. From this it was a
short step to the optical fan and several types were developed.
1). Spyhole Fans: For short sight a single concave lens could
be mounted in one of the spyholes, effectively forming a Quizzer or Quizzing
Glass. This was then further developed into a
Galilean telescope by mounting a convex lens in the outer guardstick and a
concave lens in the inner guardstick. Lining up the holes in the intervening
sticks, when the fan was closed and the blades rested upon one another, produced
a simple tube with a lens at each end. The resulting spyglass could even be
adjusted for focus by varying the separation of the closed sticks.
Remember that the most decorative face of the fan was always
shown to other people and is the Obverse side. The Reverse side of the fan could
often be quite plain as it didn't matter being presented only to the user. Thus
the guardstick nearest to the user's face would be on the reverse and so, if
only one lens was fitted, it would provide a better field of view placed on the
reverse guardstick (a quizzer).
2). Spyglass Fans: The miniaturization of telescopes allowed a spyglass to be
set in the central pivot holding the sticks, usually with a draw tube to allow
focusing but sometimes with a single fixed tube. The 360 degree cockade fan
usually had the spyglass in the central pivot, where it could be used discreetly
from behind the open fan.
3). Lorgnette fans: These were made with the lorgnette frame folding away into
one of the guardsticks, which were usually made of tortoiseshell. Lorgnette fans
could be used for reading menus etc. and continued to be made and used into the
early 20th century, well after spyglasses fans fell into disuse and distance
spectacles became more acceptable. A patent for improving lorgnette fans was
taken out as late as 1899.
4). Binocular Opera Glass fans: These were also made, the instrument being
attached to the pivot in such a way that the closed fan formed the handle.
Collectors of antiques look for an item that is interesting
and unusual. When it is also rare, and visually attractive (fashionable) it
becomes even more desirable. Optical fans fulfill all these criteria and they
are amongst the most strikingly artistic and beautiful of ophthalmic antiques.
Glossary of Terms:
Sticks: The skeleton of the fan which revolves around a Pivot
at the base. The two outer Sticks (blades), upper and lower, are called Guardsticks or just guards and may be thicker and more profusely decorated.
Sticks can be made of many materials, tortoiseshell, horn, ivory, bone,
mother-of-pearl, wood and mica. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish
between bone and ivory but, generally speaking, ivory will be slightly whiter
and also have a very slight sheen. Tiny dark striations noted occasionally with
bone might well be the channels left by tiny blood vessels since they fill up
with dirt which darkens them. Differentiating between Horn & Tortoiseshell can
also sometimes be quite difficult even when you are holding the item in your
hands. Many Tortoiseshell items are obvious because of the characteristic
striations of colour, the problems arise mainly with very dark and with blonde
shell, both of which may have virtually no striations.
As far as spectacles frames are concerned, and especially with
heavier "Library" frames, shell spectacles fronts are often made up of layers of
thin shell spliced together under heat and pressure. With careful examination
these layers may be visible - a positive identification of tortoiseshell. These
layers may be present in some thicker shell guardsticks".
Leaf: The Leaf is the portion of the fan placed on to and over the Sticks; it can
be made of silk, paper, lace, gauze or chicken skin (very fine and resembling
paper). Usually the Leaf is attached to the upper part of the Sticks called the
Ribs and holds the Sticks together. It can be single or double (to cover the
Sticks from the rear). Leaf fans usually open out to around 160 degrees.
Brisé: A fan consisting of Sticks only, which are held together usually by a
ribbon fixed near the top. The sticks are usually wider and carved, pierced, or
Cockade: A fan, either Leaf or Brisé, which opens up to 360 degrees around a
central pivot. The Guardsticks are usually extended to form a handle.
Clouté: Discs or sequins used as decoration, they can be of many materials (most
commonly cut steel) and are either glued into small pre-made depressions (pits)
made in the sticks or pinned with metallic thread or mother of pearl.
Comparable to confetti, these can rarely be gold, silver, or even mica.
Gorge: The part of the fan, usually the exposed Sticks, between the bottom of the
Leaf and the Pivot.
Arrow Shape: As fans were frequently given as a present to a lady, many brisé
fans were carved so that when closed they resembled an arrow (Cupid's).
1. Fans, by Hélène Alexander, a Shire book
2. Unfolding Beauty – The Art of the Fan, by Anna Gray Bennett, The Collection
of Esther Oldham and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1988
3. Imagination and its Contribution to Fans, by Maryse Volet, Geneva
3. “Optical Uses of Fans”, Chapter 18 from Spectacles and Other Vision Aids, Dr.
J. William Rosenthal, MD, 1996