The day I lost my heart to Greenwich’s Fan Museum

Small, but perfectly formed – and an utter delight, from start to finish. That is my humble opinion of The Fan Museum in Greenwich.

Even its location has significance, housed as it is within two Grade II-listed Georgian town houses on Crooms Hill. Built between 1718 and 1721, having been designed by the architect John Savery, by the 1980s the houses were derelict. Luckily for us, the Museum’s Trustees saw their potential and restored them, knocking the houses into one, but retaining their Georgian facade, staircase, panelled rooms and front courtyard with wrought-iron railways and gates. Even before you enter the Museum, you understand that this building is special.

It is also a labour of love. The Museum’s founder, Hélène Alexander, fell in love with fans when she saw her grandmother, Lady In Waiting to Sultana, Melek of Egypt, dressed in Court attire and carrying a magnificent black ostrich feather fan. Since then, Hélène has devoted her life to the study and collection of fans – or “portable artworks”, as she calls them.

I had no idea what to expect from this museum; all I knew was that its quirkiness appealed to me. I’ve never thought of fans in any context other than being a device you use to cool yourself down: read on to discover how little I knew until today…

I began my tour downstairs in The Green Room where the Museum’s permanent display is housed. Here, I learned about the history of fans, how they are made and the materials used. Talk about educational. I now know that fans can be combined with binoculars, disguised as daggers (gulp), attached to ear trumpets and – my particular favourite – turned into miniature champagne bottles.

I also now know that the history of fans stretches back 1,000s of years – in fact, fans of gold, ivory and feathers were discovered in the burial chamber of Tutankhamen. Fans were used throughout the ancient world, particularly by the Chinese, who brought fan making to a high art. And it was China’s neighbour, Japan, which was the birthplace of folding fans, whose use can be traced back to the 6th century. To this day, fans continue to be used in the Far East by both men and women for practical and ceremonial purposes.

Like all items of fashion, fans reflect the period in which they were created and I loved the Museum’s description of them as “little pages of history which bring history to life”. On show in this collection are fans from a number of European countries as well as places as far afield as Japan, Sri Lanka, Korea, China, the Marshall Islands, Vaitupu, the Cook Islands, Guatemala and India – all beautiful, in their own, distinct, way.

My favourite item had to be an embroidered folding fan from the 1590s. The jewel in the crown of the Museum’s collection, it is, quite literally, priceless – no other fans from this period are thought to have survived. A folding fan with sticks joined at the pivot end with a cord/ribbon, its style is typical of the Elizabethan period when it was worn in conjunction with wheel farthingale dresses, as popularised at the court of Queen Elizabeth I – who sports a very similar fan in Ditchley’s famous portrait of her.

Fan Museum 01

At this time, folding fans were relatively new to the courts of Europe, and were imported via trade with the East. In fact, they remained popular for a relatively short period of time and by the close of the 17th century had been superseded by fixed fans, as indispensable costume accessories. Henceforth, fan making began to flourish – and centres of excellence emerged in France, England, Netherlands and Italy, regulated by guilds.

Since then, fans have faded in and out of fashion. Their popularity had declined noticeably by the beginning of the 19th century, due in no small part to the French Revolution, which swept away the traditions of aristocracy and with them the market for top-quality fans.

Fashions are always unpredictable, though, and fans regained their status as essential costume accessories in the second half of the 19th century. Encouraged by Eugenie, Empress of the French, the fashion-conscious and wealthy wore fans to balls, theatres and opera houses. Going into the 20th century, however, fans declined in popularity again. Women sought greater freedom and rights, and the wearing of fans became passé.

I could have spent hours in the Green Room, absorbing the exquisite creations in front of me, together with their fascinating history. Eventually, however, I managed to drag myself away as I was keen, also, to visit the temporary exhibition.

Based upstairs, this collection is thematic and changes several times a year (the Museum owns 5,000 fans but is not able to display them all at the same time, due to space restrictions). Focusing on themes including flowers, mythology, sports and leisure – all subjects which have inspired fan makers throughout the ages – on the day I visited, animals were the focus, and I found myself surrounded by images of butterflies, birds, dogs, cats and horse racing.

How I loved ‘Starlite Butterflies’ – a black wooden fan with double gauze black leaf painted with a frieze of golden butterflies at the top and embroidered with tiny shaped golden sequins. In vogue or not, it would complement any evening gown.

Fan Museum 03

In truth, though, all of this Museum is a treat. It surely must be one of this city’s best-kept secrets – I don’t know anyone else who’s been there, although if I have my way that will change. Chock-full with history and some of the most beautiful artefacts I have ever laid eyes upon, you really should add this place to your London bucket list.

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