The Regency Wardrobe collection - research & making - Forget-me-not
Collection: The Regency Wardrobe
Garment: Woman’s Fan
Materials: cartridge paper, watercolour ink, coloured paper, tracing paper, gold leaf, Mizuhiki rice paper cord, card, quilling paper strips
This piece is inspired by a letter to Mr Richard Bevan from an unknown sender in the 1820s, held in the Bevan and Dewar collection at The Regency Town House, Hove.
As inspiration for this piece the letter, and thereby the fan, are imaginatively attributed to the figure of an elderly mother or aunt. The words seem to assure a young male relative of how secure this matriarch is in her knowledge of the constancy of his regard for her, and to recognize how busy she knows him to be. Arguably however, in between the lines, there is a sense of her lonely regret concerning the length of time between his letters, and a fragile undertone of fear that in fact he might gradually forget her.
This piece is also inspired by the idea of the ‘Language of Flowers’ and the symbolism thereby attributed to the forget-me-not. The craze for interpreting flowers reached its époque during the Victorian age when surely any bouquet spoke volumes. There is a list of emotions attributed to certain flowers on the wall at Worthing Museum.
However during the Regency period also, flowers certainly held symbolic meaning. In Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno 1759 to 1763 there are the following lines: "For the flowers have their angels...
For there is a language of flowers.
For there is a sound reasoning upon all flowers.
For elegant phrases are nothing but flowers.”
And in 1819 Charlotte de Latour published a book titled Le Langage des Fleurs.
© Worthing Museum - Fans Unfolded exhibition text
My ideas regarding fans and the making of this particular one had begun to take form even before a research trip I made to The Fan Museum, Greenwich in the late spring of 2018 (please see: https://stephaniesmart.wixsite.com/stephaniesmart/single-post/2018/06/13/The-Fan-Museum---research-visit---fans) and likewise before I later attended the exhibition titled Fans Unfolded, at Worthing Museum. It had all begun in fact on the first visit I ever made to Worthing Museum at the end of the previous year. Then I'd spotted their gallery text showing The Language of Flowers (see below).
That flowers had once each been meant to symbolise a specific idea or emotion and had thereby been used like a language was an idea I'd heard of before but not worked with. I'd also heard of something similar regarding fans and handkerchiefs, that is, concerning the idea that holding one in a certain position had been meant to symbolise something and thereby pass on a message. You can read here about what else I later found in this regard relating to the art of handkerchief flirtation.
Mary Kitson, historian at The Fan Museum, has assured me however, that the idea that fans were used in this way is a myth, a fact backed up by Sotheby's here: https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-secret-language-of-fans but, as they state, the myth is a persistent one. And I was to hear it asked about by a contemporary audience member in a talk Mary gave at the Regency Town House which I organised as part of the process of the research for The Regency Wardrobe in October 2019.
But whatever the truth of the belief in such attributions the idea of fans and flowers and handkerchiefs and meaning were to become intertwined in my mind.
© Worthing Museum
The third point of the triangle I didn't know I was forming came from reading a particular letter from the Bevan and Dewar collection held by The Regency Town House, Hove. In fact it was just the first few lines and the tone of the letter (that is, what I read in and between the words) that put me in mind of the forget-me-not and saw me drawing all three together this flower, a fan design and a real Regeny era letter.
"My dearest Richard,
I thank you for your letter, and assure you I had not, even in thought, once accused you of neglect, and tho’ I shall always take the greatest delight in receiving a letter from you, when you feel in a humour to chat with me freely yet I should be sorry to think that you were induced to give up a walk, or anything pleasant from the idea, that I should require you to be punctual in your replies to my epistles - I am too confident of your affection to believe you are unmindful of me, but..." http://www.rth.org.uk/collections/bevan-dewar-letters/letters/1820 (exact date unknown)
It reads to me as if the authoress (the identity of the sender is in fact lost but I imagine it to be a woman) might have been chastised in a previous letter, or has otherwise, through some more indirect language, assumed herself in trouble for implying to him that he is forgetful of her. She reassures him of her belief in his constancy and yet I wonder if she isn't just as surely reassuring herself. And in so doing she is also expressing a universal anxiety (felt across time as well, presumably, as across continents) regarding the fragility of proffered affection and its sudden possible loss.
So here is the link I saw with the forget-me-no. That flower which, in comparison to those others on the list isn't only suggestive of its attributed meaning but is instead absolutely blatant about it. Not only do the three words that form its name make its symbolic attribution clear but even the fact that are hyphenated illustrates the point, joining them inextricably and forever as if by a rope. No one receiving a bunch of forget-me-nots could be in any doubt of the inferred wish of the sender.
So, I imagine our anonymous lady letter writer, in the 1820s, looking up from the piece of paper she has on her writing desk, pen still in hand, at the bunch of tiny blue flowers she picked that morning; wondering at her own subconscious leanings, and writing with a feeling of some anxiety even whilst she is claiming she is fine and untroubled.
Given how important letter writing was to our Regency era ancestors and how importatnt paper is to The Regency Wardrobe project, it's worth taking a moment to consider the paper that might have used for letter writing in the early 1800's. Whilst considering that question I even found websites showing how one might have folded a letter in that period, methods that whilst working on Forget-me-not I didn't know I would later find informative, that is, when it came to the making of the third ridicule in the collection which would house a very secret and well folded letter inside it.
I won't go into detail here but will simply include these four links to the best sites I found in this regard:
Regarding the decoration of the fan I was then making I began by drawing the flowers onto it's leaf (I loved this botanical link, between the names of the parts of any fan and the particular decoration I was applying and would play with it again later whilst making Wildflowers).
I'd just been looking at Oriental fans, including many made for export (from around the same period as Richard's letter is believed to have been written) and had found the glitter of gold, beneath layers of lacquer, appealing. I choose pink for the background because of its associations with love and thus my colour palette was set.
From Made in China, exhibition guide, The afn Museum, p160
The fan leaf proved to be the easy part, relatively speaking. Styling the sticks and guards and the edging of the leaf appropriately was not as straight forward and you might spot some of the changes that occured in these images, including how I made three complete sets of sticks before I was satisfied.
In the end I chose to mimic forget-me-not leaves, painting them first green and then turning them back toward a mimicry of ivory or bone, leaving only a hint of green along the side of each. Applying the layer of tracing paper with the first part of the letter written as if in her hand served to mute the gold leaf and to half hide the flowers in a way that seemed to me suggestive of looking back at the emotions of a ghost.
This is one of the pieces in the collection where the manner of its display extends the symbolism. I wanted to extend the hints of longing and of love felt but now lost in the mists of time, by displaying it in the way that we tend to preserve and display history. I placed a copy of the three pages of the original letter beneath the fan and placed the whole in a museum style case. I then made a single flower, meant to look as if it were growing from amidst the sentiments expressed, but which remains trapped beneath a sheet of perspex unable to grow larger only to be peered at through a hole in the paper of the fan's leaf.
At first the fan was framed by a border of blue the same colour as it's lacy edgin, this has changed since these photographs were taken but its front guard still has flowers made of papiér mache.
And beside the fan lies this bunch of forget-me-nots, symbolising the bunch that I imagined my letter writer might have placed, in a small glass vase, on her writing desk. Reassuringly pretty whilst yet worryingly poignant and asking not to be forgotten.
As a last aside another interesting post concerning fans in the Regency is:
Stephanie Smart and Forget me not as a work in progress
This project has been supported by: