I've always been intrigued by the details of our ancestor's lives in the past, and especially by fashion history. One of the more exotic aspects are the accessories that they used, from headgear, shoes and in this volume, fans, which in the hands of those that could afford them became symbols of wealth, craftsmanship and taste. Besides the practical purpose, that of trying to keep oneself cool in a time before electrical fans and air conditioning, fans were a not-so-subtle means of displaying status, and even communication.
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Jane Roberts, the editor of this elegant volume, writes an introduction to the collection, along with a glossary and bibliography with suggestions for further reading and studying. In the introduction, Roberts talks about the royal ladies who built up the fans in the Royal Collection (a vast array of art, furniture, clothing and the like that is held in trust by Her Majesty The Queen for the people of the United Kingdom). The earliest is Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, and continues through the present day to the current Queen, Elizabeth II, each one with a very brief description and her role in collecting and sometimes commissioning the fans in the collection.
More than eighty fans in the collection are shown, often with closeups of the various elements, from the guards -- the long sticks that are at the edges, the front and reverses, and sometimes the boxes that each one was stored in. Photographs and paintings of the various owners are shown, sometimes with them holding the particular fan. Each fan has the provenance -- the history and ownership -- given, along with some details on the history or the workmanship of the item.
What amazed me was the incredible workmanship of these items. Made of such varied items as ivory, various woods, feathers, papers, silk and lace, each one is unique and beautifully made. Several different shapes are shown, from the familiar wide 'v' to the 'cockade', which opens to display a full circle. One stunning fan is of this shape, delicately carved of ivory. Many were made to commemorate weddings, coronations, state visits from other monarchs, and sometimes, simply birthday presents. Some of the most beautiful are of lace, each one made with panels that were specifically designed to fit a fan. The fans come from around the world, with many of them of Chinese origin, others are decorated with feathers from South American and African birds, and three of the later ones are of Russian manufacture from the house of Faberge.
Considering that fans were once considered to be an essential part of a lady's wardrobe, this is just a very small sampler of an art form that has faded away. Roberts touches a bit on the use of fans as a means of political affiliations, and also on the art of flirting and silent communication between men and women.
The real draw of the book are the multitude of colour photographs, with each fan having one or more photographs. The details are stunning, and endless details draw the eye in. Over the years, I've found the various books that are published by the Royal Collection to be wonderful sources of history and art, bringing little known artefacts to life and to the public with great attention to detail, and with an excellent eye to detail.
Filled with all sorts of little facts and stories, this is a beautifully made book. Those who are interested especially in costume history would enjoy this one, filling in a little known area about fashion accessories.
Along with the vivid photos and descriptions, there are a glossary, and a selection of books for further research and reading. Four stars, and available in both a paperback and hardbound format. For more information about the Royal Collections, go to www.royalcollection.org.uk
Unfolding Pictures: Fans in the Royal Collection
Jane Roberts, et al.
2005; The Royal Collection Enterprises, Ltd.
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