York Castle Museum

A Well-Travelled Fan

Using ivory carved in China and paper painted in Italy, this fan was made possible by the global nature of 18th century trade networks. In the 18th century some Chinese businesses made luxury objects specifically for export to Europe; these objects travelled thousands of miles and were sold to wealthy Europeans.

In the case of this fan, the Chinese ivory sticks and guards were imported into Italy. Assembled in or around Naples in 1779, the completed fan made its way to England, where it became the property of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.  

We know this because the fan was given by the queen to a member of the royal court. It was passed down through their family until 1936 when it was purchased by York Castle Museum’s founder Dr Kirk. The little cardboard label attached to the fan was made by that family, and records these details. There is no record of Queen Charlotte travelling to Italy, so it’s likely the fan was a gift.  

While the ivory shows peaceful garden scenes, the paper part of the fan – called the leaf – is all about travel and sightseeing. In the 18th century aristocratic families sent their sons to Italy and sometimes also Greece on the Grand Tour to complete their educations. Wealthy adults also made trips to Italy. The Bay of Naples was a popular destination, especially the ancient Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Both these towns were buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, they were being excavated in the 18th century.  

The front of the fan shows scenes from the region, including Mount Vesuvius gently smoking. These scenes are made to look like miniature watercolour paintings scattered on a table alongside hand-written notes. This technique is called trompe l’oeil, which means ‘to fool the eye’. In an age before postcards, tourists made sketches and watercolours of the places they visited to keep as mementos or send to family and friends. The fan has a caption and verse in Italian, and tells us the year it was created.  

The back is more dramatic than the front. The painted scene shows Mount Vesuvius erupting while people flee on boats across the bay. 1779 was the date of another major eruption. Perhaps the fan was made not just as a memento of that part of Italy, but as a souvenir of that particular eruption of the famous volcano.