The exhibition entitled “Nelson’s Fans” on show at The Fan Museum, Greenwich from 1st July until 6th November presents a selection of popular fans commemorating Nelson’s victories as well as some “French opposition” fans and a number of other artifacts of the period.
Arguably one can compare the commemorative fans to tiny patriotic flags and tools for propaganda. Carried in the hands of beautiful ladies they would give Nelson’s battles a romantic and adventurous edge; brought back by tourists they would be subtle political messages; bought by gentlemen they would carry with them all the symbolism of strength, bravery and heroism which many gentlemen might like to imagine themselves to be.
However very few fans actually feature Nelson, and most memorabilia concerning him is post 1805. Heroes are best remembered for their victories: Although he was very popular in his time (people who couldn’t name the Prime Minister knew who he was) he was looked upon by some as an adulterer and his affair with Lady Emma Hamilton and his treatment of his wife caused offence in some quarters.
It is difficult to imagine Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy or Mr Bingley buying a fan with a portrait of Nelson on it as a gift to the young ladies. “Nelson and victory”, a fan in the Charlotte Schreiber Collection (in the British Library) is the only one which might have been acceptable, as it simply lists Nelson’s achievements at the Battle of the Nile (Aug 1799).
It was Nelson’s involvement with Naples (from September 1799 and June 1800) and his friendship with the British Ambassador, Lord Hamilton and his lovely wife that started his affair with Emma. A veritable tourist industry existed for Neapolitan fans and many examples are on show in the exhibition. A fan painted with the Neapolitan royal family silhouettes (the reverse with a view of the Bay of Naples), its guards bearing gold Masonic devices, shows the king and queen of Naples with their children. The queen, Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples had brought from her native Vienna to the South of Italy, its first Masonic Lodge. This historic fan will take pride of place in the exhibition.
Displaying garments of the period together with Toby Jugs showing Nelson’s features (his little pigtail forming the handle), and a good deal more, including some unusual “opposition” (French) political fans and fan leaves, this promises to be a quite fascinating exhibition shedding some new light on to an already well known character.