Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 30 December 2007

Fans and folderols

If you walk just a little bit away from the traffic and tourist crowds in central Greenwich, into the quiet Georgian streets beside the park, you'll find the Fan Museum, just across the street from the Greenwich Theatre.

This is quite a revelation if all you, like me, know of fans is the flick and flutter that underlines some witty (or smutty) remark from a Sir Foppington Sneerwell in a Restoration comedy (by the by, whatever happened to Restoration comedy? It used to be all the go, but we don't seem to hear much of it nowadays).

In two ground-floor rooms, there's a permanent exhibition of techniques and materials used to make fans - including a fan of ivory so delicately pierced and worked that it looks like the finest muslin - and some samples of basic types, including a fascinating all-purpose job with a little mirror, a thimble and compartments for a sewing kit and smelling salts. There's a final nod to modern industrial and battery-powered fans, but they're not what we've come to see, are they?

In two rooms upstairs is a temporary exhibition, currently on a theme of "Celebrations", with plenty of examples from the collections. Mostly French, with some Italian, Spanish and English examples, commemorating variously royal weddings and births, revolutionary anniversaries, the first balloon ascents, Christmases and New Year celebrations. The stars are the fans by Gauguin and Sickert.

The earlier they are, the more classical many of the decorative themes (a handy explanation here of how to tell your Cleopatras from your Calypsos): but there are special party fans from the nineteenth-century (some beautiful art nouveau peacocks in mother of pearl, and some rather gruesome embossed paper pugs and cats), and calendars as commercial promotions.

Downstairs at the back is the Orangery, a modern building but painted in vaguely Georgian style with trompe-l'oeil flowers and trees, which offers teas on Sundays and Tuesdays (buy a ticket at the desk). A "half tea" for £3.50 included a large pot of properly strong tea, two warm scones with jam and cream (whipped, though, not clotted) - in proper dishes, hooray, not those fiddly sachets. A full tea at £4.50 includes a cake.

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