Optical fans

We invite all our online visitors to join the optical fan club. Then you can take part in a game of hide...and see.

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Miniature spyglass fans were for ladies to spy on their neighbours without it being thought they were looking at anything at all; in that sense they went a stage further than the mere diversionary tactics of the jealousy glass.

Detail of enamel decoration on an optical spyglass fan

The picture on the right shows a cockade brisé fan with two handles of pierced ivory and a coloured enamel design on its upper third depicting two women against a classical outdoor scene. There is a single-draw spyglass in the central pivot. The item is probably French and dates from around 1810; such fans were very much in vogue in the First Empire period

Fans have also been found in conjunction with lorgnettes and monocles. These do not have the secretive purpose but are simply multifunctional items for the lady wishing to carry as little as possible.

Detail of a magnifying glass fan

The image to the left shows a 135 degree brisé fan made from pierced ivory. The twenty three sticks are decorated with figure carvings. A monogram of the initials FHO spreads across the three centre sections. Note that this fan has no handle. A gold-rimmed magnifying lens hangs down but as the picture shows there is no obviously convenient way of holding it up to the eye. The stem of this magnifier consists of two lengths of metal soldered to the rim and fixed at the other end to an axle with jewelled terminals. The item is Chinese, but made for the Western export market and dates from the 19th century, but precisely when would be difficult to pinpoint.

The materials used for optical fans are often delicate but may include ivory, horn or tortoiseshell. Silk or paper fans did not generally have the strength to support an optical appendage.

Our collection of optical fans comprises one of the most unusual and unexpected facets to the museum. In both form and function they are closely related to the collection of hand-held eyeshades, which might also incorporate similar optical devices.

The museum is still looking for someone to donate a lorgnette fan or an opera glass fan!

Sunbeam pattern optical fan

The third image shows a cockade brisé fan which is of stained horn, clouté with steel, bearing gilded and silver ornamentation. You can see it glistening at the ends of its 'sunbeam' edges. It dates from circa 1810. Clouté is a difficult word to interpret, it refers to the small rounds dots of gold or silver leaf paper. which were like bits of confetti glued on and then rubbed into pre-made pits in the material of the sticks. In English the verb 'to clout' (amongst its other meanings such as 'hit') means to patch or stud, usually with metal, often in a heavy-handed or rough manner, but in French the verb 'clouter' means to 'adorn' with nails and it refers to the decorative use of metal. It has an altogether more delicate and refined meaning.

To see more images of our optical fan collection visit this external website.

Tortoiseshell spyglass fan


Planning a theatre trip like Michael here? You might be forgiven for thinking this object would be a bit impractical to slip in the pocket or handbag. In fact it would have been just the sort of thing that wealthy theatre-goers took with them in the early 19th century. The twenty nine tortoiseshell sticks of this cockade brisé fan, with carved decoration of figures and animals in a Chinese style fold neatly into a compact device for carrying, but when unfolded they would have been considered both the height of fashion and an immensely practical accessory. You see there was a single-draw metal spyglass set into the central pivot. The user could hide behind the fan whilst surreptitiously casting a glance at the other people in the audience. Eventually people caught on that this was what was happening but optical fan users carried on regardless...it was the done thing to be observed spying on the neighbours. Not to be spied upon was the worst fate that could befall a fashionable person.

We hope you'll agree with us that these are quite simply fan-tastic objects!

Museum Volunteer Frank Barraclough, who has collected optical fans for over twenty five years, comments

There is no doubt that optical fans are among the most decorative of all ophthalmic antiques and they are certainly my favourites. The first folding fans appeared early in the 16th century and the first telescope at the beginning of the 17th but, as far as I am aware, there is no firm evidence as to when the first optical fan appeared. Certainly there are optical fans reliably dated to the 18th century but the heyday of spyglass fans was probably 1785-1825, although some types, particularly lorgnette fans and opera-glass fans, continued into the late-Victorian era. The Museum would welcome the opportunity to obtain examples of the latter two.

Frank Barraclough FCOptom Independent optometrist

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