Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Original fan design from 1797?

John Nicholson's, from England, sells on 31 January 2018 some "19th century, English School" watercolour illustrations, estimated at £50 to £80.

They caught my attention because of their unusual form, as if they were trompe-l'oeil paintings (a genre which, as regular readers will know, I'm rather fond of).

The auction description provided the title of the works, ""The World Grown Odd and Crazy", and this lead me to two fans made by George Wilson, a London fan maker active between 1795 and 1801. They are described in depth at a 2012 MA theses "catalogue raisonnée" by Rosanna Harrison which you can read here. Images of the two versions of this fan are appended at the end of that catalogue.

The above high resolution image from one of these fans comes from the "Antique fans" blog.

It's a satirical fan with 25 images and accompanying text. The drawings are typical for the period and most remind me of the works by Rodolphe Tôppfer, the Swiss artist who invented the comic strip in the 1840s.

The work for sale at first looks as if someone has cut an unmounted fan in pieces. But some things don't really match. First of all, when an auctioneer claims that something is a watercolour illustration, it is not likely that it is an engraving instead. It could be an engraving handcoloured with watercolour of course.

But looking closely at some details (as far as the not-very-detailed photograph allows) shows that this is not the same image as the fan. The text in the middle is different (e.g. the exlamation mark at the end of the title), and the drawings are all somewhat different as well.

Which leaves us with two possibilities. Either someone has copied nearly all of the fan (we have I believe 22 of the 26 images, plus the central text and the bottom text), and then cut this into pieces for whatever reason. Or this is the actual design by George Wilson for this particular fan, which he made in different pieces which he then could rearrange and display before creating his actual engraving. I don't believe that a complicated engraving like this one is started from scratch (pun intended), from a blank canvass without preparations. Coupled with the quality of the drawings, and the unlikelihood of someone copying this in this manner, makes mequite certain that this is the original design by Wilson.

What's it worth then? Very hard to tell, but certainly more than the estimate. I would suppose that people interested in these fans, in late 18th century satire and illustrations, would be willing to spend £500 on it instead, but it's a wild guess. The fan itself (unmounted) sold for £154 at Christie's in 1992 (lot 77). And of course it is unlikely that most people in these groups will notice this auction in the first place!

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