The photographs in the “Presenting a Cooling Image” exhibition at The Fan Museum (Greenwich) have been selected from the vast Lafayette glass plate negative archive held by the Victoria & Albert Museum, and each picture is displayed alongside similar or corresponding fans from The Fan Museum’s own collections.
The 30 prints have been made from the original 15 x 12 inch glass negatives using the latest digital scanning and printing techniques. Society hostesses and debutantes captured in these striking portraits all carry a fan, as a costume accessory or as integral part of their outfit, often for presentation at court. This exhibition aims to place each fan in its historical and social context; reflecting on who may have owned it, and when and where it may have been used.
Discovered on a London building site in 1988, the portraits in the glass plate archive of the Lafayette studio encapsulate the upper echelons of society at the turn of the twentieth century. Covering the period from 1885 to 1933, we see images of royalty, aristocracy, the noted and the notorious.
From the stiff formality of the Marchioness of Winchester, photographed in her official robes for Edward VII’s coronation in 1902, to the understated elegance of Miss Mary Latta’s fashionable attire for presentation at court in 1923, the Lafayette archive records the transformation of fashion from the rigid corsetry of Queen Victoria’s epoch to the fluid dropped waists of the 1920s flapper. Such stylistic alterations are equally noticeable in accessories, and in the very fans on display.
Also included are images from Fancy Dress balls, usually extremely high profile social events such as the Devonshire House Ball which even Royalty attended. The vogue for costume was very popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries although interestingly, while no expense was spared in reproducing period dress, the fans carried by many women were historically inaccurate, often leading to confusion in the identification of the origin of particular fans.
Other images from the Lafayette collection have recently been seen in Pakistan, India, Romania and Austria, however it is the first time that many of the images on show have been seen since they were first made. The fans exhibited are a fraction of The Fan Museum’s unsurpassed collection (which contains more than 4000 fans and un-mounted fan leaves). Thanks to the expertise of these two museums in their respective fields it is as if both the Lafayette negative archive and the fans have truly come to life, the beauty of each object recalling the opulence and taste of this brief period of historic and social transformation.
Taking time to reflect on each fan and its corresponding portrait, the subtle undercurrents of a changing social climate are revealed and we are rewarded with yet another perspective on fans, photography and their corresponding histories.
A lavishly illustrated book is being published as a lasting record of this important juxtaposition of photographs and fans which, for the care of those forgotten “downstairs” ladies, (and now The Fan Museum), might have succumbed to the ravages of time, the red spider and the woolly bear beatle! This is a book to dip into for sheer delight as well as for accurate and hitherto unpublished reference. Available from 1st December 2005.