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Materials

Fans are made from a number of different materials, worked, finished and assembled by craftsmen specialising in different skills. Many of the fans in this exhibition were made for use by a royal lady. In these cases rare and expensive materials, including ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, vellum and silk, were used, with applied decoration in precious metals and stones.

Skill and accuracy is required in the making of even the most basic fan. For the high quality examples displayed here, the craftsmanship is often of a very high level. 'Diana with nymphs at play' is a fine example of an elaborate leather leaf with inserted mica panels, painting and cutwork. ‘The Siege of Barcelona, 1714’, ‘The Power of Love’ and The Frederick, Duke of York marriage fan show the extraordinary skill which had been achieved in ivory carving in England in the eighteenth century, whilst the 'Après les Vendanges' fan has intricately pierced and incised mother-of-pearl sticks decorated with three different colours of gold foil. The Black evening fan and Brussels lace fan demonstrate the use of textiles. Precious metals, stones and gems were often used to adorn the fans: the jay feather fan made for Queen Mary, has the monogram MAY (her family name) in diamonds set in silver-gilt beneath an enamelled silver-gilt crown also set with diamonds.

 

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Ivory

The tusks of the African or Asian elephant are regarded as the source of ‘true’ ivory. It can be cut, carved and drilled, yet is also flexible. Today elephants are a protected species and the trade in ivory is banned.

 

 

 

 

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Tortoiseshell

The scales of marine turtles, most commonly the hawksbill, loggerhead and green turtle, are the source of tortoiseshell. Like the elephant, these species are now protected. Tortoiseshell is translucent, will bend when heated and can be polished to a high shine. 

 

 

 

 

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Leather

Animal skin is treated by various processes, including dehairing and tanning, to produce leather. For fan leaves the preferred skin is kidskin (from a young goat), but fine sheepskin is sometimes used.

 

 

 

 

 

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Silk

Fibre produced as a cocoon by the caterpillar of the Bombyx mori moth or silkworm. The fibres are teased from the cocoon and wound together to form a silk thread which is woven into a textile.

 

 

 

 

 

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​Mother-of-pearl

Layers of calcium carbonate are secreted by certain molluscs to form a shell. When the hard, outer layer is removed, an iridescent surface is revealed. This can be polished, carved, etched and gilded.

 

 

 

 

 

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Paper

Paper is made from vegetable fibres, mostly linen and cotton, soaked in water and beaten to a pulp, then dried in sheets. Easily pleated, paper provides a ready support for drawn or painted decoration.

 

 

 

 

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Vellum

Animal skin (of a sheep, goat or calf) is treated by liming, dehairing, stretching and scraping to make vellum, a translucent membrane suitable as a support for writing or painting.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lace

A textile produced when thread – usually linen, silk or cotton – is worked with needles or bobbins to form a decorative pattern.