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Princess Elizabeth's fan 1789

Leather (kid) leaf inscribed in border Health is restored to ONE and Happiness to Millions; carved ivory guards (identical) and pierced ivory sticks, (2 + 20) | 26.0 cm (guardstick) | RCIN 25087

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  • The recovery of George III from his first serious bout of illness (from November 1788) in February 1789 was the occasion for widespread jubilation and festivities. In her record of one of these celebrations, in April or May 1789, the novelist Fanny Burney noted, ‘The Queen graciously presented me with an extremely pretty medal of green and gold, and a motto, Vive le Roi, upon the Thanksgiving occasion, as well as a fan, ornamented with the words - ‘Health restored to one, and happiness to millions’.

    A small group of fans associated with George III’s recovery are known, including a number of almost identical examples, all of which are variants of the present fan. The best known of these is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, having formerly also belonged to Queen Mary. Although the inscribed border and the central crowned GR with rose and thistle in that fan are the same as in the current example, the ovals at either side are there replaced by long blue scarf-like bands inscribed On the King’s and Happy Recovery; the fan is dated 1789 at the foot of the leaf. Several fans close in appearance to the London example are known in public collections. Further ‘recovery fans’ close to the London example have also survived in private collections. One of these descended through the family of Thomas Weld (of Lulworth, Dorset), with whom the King stayed in August 1789.

    It seems likely that these fans, which have a number of variations in the sticks and decoration, may have been produced in some quantities for distribution at one of the many festivities organised to give thanks for the merciful release of the King from his illness. The overall dark blue and white colouring of the group suggests that they may be associated with the evening ‘Gala’ at Windsor Castle on 1 May 1789, organised by the King’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal. According to the Annual Register for 1789, the 228 guests were invited by both the Princess and the Queen. ‘The dresses were the Windsor uniform . . . The gown was white tiffany, with a garter blue body. . . . All the ladies wore bandeaus round the front of their head dresses, with the words ‘God save the King;’ and many of them had beautiful medallions of his majesty.’ The King was present for part of the evening, in the company of the Queen and their sons and daughters.

    The person responsible for decorating these charming but far from sophisticated objects is not identified on the fan itself. According to a scrap of paper inscribed during the lifetime of Queen Victoria (who received this fan as a Golden Jubilee gift), it was George III’s third daughter, Princess Elizabeth (1770-1840). The Princess’s artistic activities from the 1790s onwards are relatively well documented, and it is intrinsically possible that she was involved in the decoration of the ‘recovery fans’. From the Queen’s letters of 1792, requesting both leather and sticks from Italy, it appears that fan production may have been one of the royal family’s favoured leisure activities. However, it would appear unlikely that Princess Elizabeth painted hundreds of similar fans unaided.

    George III’s recovery was also the subject of numerous engraved fans, including one in the Royal Collection and another published by T. Balster in March 1789. This incorporates many of the same elements as are present in the painted fans; for instance, the initials GR (for Georgius Rex, King George) and the rose and thistle (symbolising the union of the crowns of England and Scotland). In addition it includes the French inscription Vive Le Roy (Long Live the King), a particularly poignant reminder of contemporary events in France where, on 17 June 1789, the Third Estate declared its autonomy from the King and constituted itself as a National Assembly; just under a month later the Bastille was stormed.

    Text adapted from Unfolding Pictures: Fans in the Royal Collection 2005

    Reputedly presented to a guest at a party to celebrate George III's recovery in 1789; presented by Lady Holland to Queen Victoria on her Golden Jubilee, 1887; bequeathed to King Edward VII; Queen Alexandra; by whom presented to Queen Mary, 1911

  • Medium and techniques

    Leather (kid) leaf inscribed in border Health is restored to ONE and Happiness to Millions; carved ivory guards (identical) and pierced ivory sticks, (2 + 20)


    26.0 cm (guardstick)