Mysteries of London

First in a series about odd destinations, often but not only in London.  

 I’ve been looking at a list of the 250 museums in London, to which is appended a further list of 30 or 40 defunct ones with the dates of their closing. The main list includes the house in which one of the greatest Japanese novelists lived in 1900-02, two collections of outsider art (mental patients and other eccentrics), an old operating theatre, and a house in Wandsworth Road where almost every space is filled with carved fretwork.

I was on the trail of undiscovered marvels in London because I’d just emerged from one, the Fan museum in Greenwich, a visit like falling down a rabbit hole into another, smaller world with its own rules, which left you disoriented trying to return to your before-world.

The main event at the Fan museum was an exhibition of 65 fans made from the feathers of various, mainly exotic, birds. Fans are a strange, mainly exhausted form, and this seemed a way to introduce a little wildness into the territory, or so I thought.

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It began with a fan of white peacock feathers, much more air than substance and so, not much use for creating a breeze, but like a natural display, a complete tail outspread. The tail itself was a fan, or was it instead that fans were originally tails in inspiration, a bodily organ spreading itself to make an effect?

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The loose gathering of large untrammeled feathers turned out to be a recurring type, seen also in a spray of silver pheasant plumes with staccato markings of black on white, to be pondered like calligraphy. A nearby fan had more mysterious markings which also asked to be interpreted or ‘read’. I found out from the catalogue that this bewitching

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pattern consisted entirely of the breast feathers of the common pheasant, fanned out un-naturally to put extra space between the markings. So the intriguing script of dark on light had not occurred until the fan maker got to work.

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Likewise in one of my favourites, the jay-feather fan, natural materials are grouped unnaturally.  The big field of iridescent blue stripes is made from small feathers that occur only under the jay’s wings, and 200 birds are consumed to make one fan. The oldest fan in the museum’s collection, from tenth or eleventh century Peru, brings home the point by contraries: it is trimmed with yellow macaw feathers, for which birds are not killed but their moulted leftovers collected. This label came as a shock. Until that moment I had avoided noticing that these fragile constructions might occasionally be the results of campaigns of carnage.

But if you are going to accept that such pattern-making in natural materials is often beautiful, you have to put up with the sacrifice of a certain number of birds. It seems odd to remember only part-way through an exhibition that making objects for human use from other animals entails this. So it is a redeeming feature, not a regret, that these artifacts have become obsolete.   We examine them as the weird fruit of other times, and enjoy a saving distance from actually using fans.

There’s a kind of integrity in keeping together in their original order all the feathers of a single bird of paradise, including the head, stuffed and tucked under the wing along one edge of the fan. And there’s an almost intolerable artifice in making life-like roses of white feathers, their leaves of feathers tinted green, and then finally mounting a stuffed hummingbird on this bouquet.

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Nor can we easily imagine anyone carrying a fan which resembles a bird plunging downward, made of feathers from four other species of bird. Or even worse (is it worse?) a big butterfly made of bird-feathers also plunging downward and constituting a fan, except for a few bits of abnormally blue sky composed of blue feathers.

Nor are we comfortable with pictures of parrots on cherry boughs made entirely of the startling blue feathers of kingfishers, on the same principle that we don’t want horses to study arithmetic or monkeys to drink cups of tea. The kingfishers don’t know what they are taking part in.

Downstairs in displays from the permanent collection, none of these quandaries and excitements over other species crop up, just the crazy extravagance of Elizabethan embroidery, all for a fan.

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Or the paradoxical boldness of getting street artists to design fans—what could be further from the world of fans than the squalor of the streets where graffiti and street art can survive undisturbed? Yet these were an inspired initiative, all the more because so unlikely.

The museum makes a separate space for serious artists confining themselves to the dimensions of a fan to see what extra stimulus might come from that, like Sickert doing one of his theatrical subjects and using it to exaggerate the emptiness in the middle, which exists both in the shape of the fan and the space of the theatre,

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and more exceptions for the Chinese artists who treated the fan-shape as, like the haiku, a form that hems you in in a maddening but potentially productive way. And finally 17c French paintings of gangs of putti engaged in grown-up tasks which are only fans to me because the labels say so, yet may be developed with special exquisiteness and unusual crowding because the artist is also thinking ‘fan’.

At Greenwich the idea of the fan has expanded beyond the building into the garden, where the box hedges take on the spreading shape of a fan being unfolded, and the plants declare a fan-like leaning toward Japanese species.  This small museum is just the right size to cast an absorbing spell, which works as long as you are shut up inside it, and for a few minutes after.