The Fan Museum, like many small historic house museums, is one of those hidden gems of London everyone loves to stumble on and subsequently rave about. It’s tucked away in Greenwich behind a set of Georgian doors in leafy splendour, and houses a collection of over 4000 fans and fan leaves. The house, a Grade II listed building, has been beautifully restored and forms a really elegant setting for the collection.

In this Olympic year, the curators chose to create an exhibition that reflects on sports and leisure, especially as the Equestrian Games will be held in Greenwich. I was intrigued to see how fans could relate to sports at all, since I have always considered them to be delicate feminine accessories. This compact exhibition, located in the upper floor of the house, has been arranged thematically to cover different areas of sports and leisure: seaside and water sports; flying and ballooning; motoring; football and cricket; racquet and ball sports; winter sports and equestrian sports. 

The racquet and ball sports section is housed in the central display case around a tennis dress from the 1920s. In this case you can see Squash Court, a fan dating from the eighteenth century. This is an ivory fan - curator Jacob Moss explained to me that the ivory sticks were carved, pierced and painted individually, and that the fan leaf was painted separately and then attached to the fan. The depth of craftsmanship is stunning - Moss explained that these were statement pieces that displayed the owner’s high status. By comparison, Ladies Tennis from the 1910s is simpler: the sticks were made from wood and the tennis scene had been painted over the fan. The materials are not as expensive, making it more of a practical fan.

Fans were also often used as advertising giveaways. Tennis (1913), a cockade fan, was printed rather than painted, and used to advertise Benedictine liquor. The materials used show that it was clearly intended to be a throwaway, but the quality of the graphic image is nevertheless quite arresting and reminiscent of vintage French advertisements.

The seaside and water sports display case contains fans from previous Olympic Games. The fan Olympic Games 1924 features women’s sports dress from the period. Moss pointed out that the shapes of fans are linked to changing fashion in clothing, as fans formed part of an overall style of dress. This fan style - ballotin - is less splayed, almost shell-like, and simple, which reflects changes in women’s fashions, particularly as women were able to wear looser, more comfortable clothing and to engage in sports in the twentieth century. There are also four fans on display from the Seoul 2002 Olympics. These are fixed (non-folding) traditional Korean fans with images of the Games logos, showing that fans are still being used as promotional items in contemporary contexts.

The last fan I want to mention has been included in a section titled 'Legends', which is more specifically about the Olympics. The Olympians (c1700) is a lovely fan full of exquisite workmanship. The sticks are made of carved and painted ivory; the silver decoration was achieved by inserting fine silver rods into the ivory, creating a permanent pattern; and the fan leaf has been finely painted with the imagery of the Gods of Olympus at a banquet.  From the quality of the materials, the fan can be placed as a highly valuable display object, and in current contexts it works as a fabulous centrepiece for the Fan Museum to celebrate London 2012.

This is a lovely, engaging exhibition, whose curatorial approach works well to show how fans have been in continuous use since the eighteenth century, and explores a seemingly unlikely connection between the ladylike fan and sport.

Sports, Leisure and Fans, at Fan MuseumRita Fennell reviews the Fan Museum's exhibition, Sports, Leisure and Fans.4