To celebrate Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee this year, we will be exhibiting this European fan alongside highly prestigious British antique silver that has just landed in Hong Kong. As the main highlight Queen Mary's fan has a handwritten catalogue note and is signed by her on the reverse:
“Jewelled fan which belonged to the Grand Duchess Constantine of Russia, the first cousin of my father. I bought it from her grand daughter Pss [abbrev. Princess] Vera of Russia in 1949.”
Painted paper fan with brass sticks and precious gemstones. Purchased by Queen Mary in 1949. It dates from the early 19th Century and depicts a triptych of familial scenes from 18th Century courtly life. It is European in origin, the mount features three watercolour scenes on paper extolling motherly values with four cupids symbolising a guardian angel that is watching over the family and the owner of the fan. Each of the leaves shows fine detail, bright colours and a depth of composition that would have been highly praised for its time. It has been immaculately preserved in this display case.
STORY OF THE FAN
We believe the first owner of the fan was Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna of Russia (1865-1927) wife of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovitch, the second son of Nicholas I, Emperor of Russia, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland. It was her daughter Vera (1906-2001) the last Imperial Russian Princess who, it is believed, sold it to Queen Mary when she was in Hamburg after fleeing from Russian occupation in 1949.
We have also been working closely with the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle to decipher this note and date the fan.
Queen Elizabeth II holding a decorated fan, part of a collection of historic items at Windsor Castle ahead of the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne.
COMPARING THE HANDWRITING OF QUEEN MARY...
Sample of Queen Mary's writing style from Buckingham Palace and an autograph that is written on a Marlborough House card.
We also have been closely comparing known sources of Queen Mary's handwriting and signature with the catalogue note.
A Compulsive Collector
Queen Mary was an avid collector in particular of objects, documents and photographs with royal associations and historical significance. Amongst her objects of desire, she was especially partial to fans, and was attributed to having owned 300 to 400 during her life.
She organised and added extensively to the Royal Collection, illuminating parts of its history, but she also helped solidify the identity of the British monarchy in the early 20th century as enduring and family-focused.
"It is really rather wonderful what we have managed to collect and get together since we married, quite a creditable collection of family things" - Queen Mary
However, for Queen Mary, arranging and adding to the Royal Collection often went hand in hand with combing through the history of that collection, and particularly the lessons it offered in royal family history. Her lifelong fascination with royal history and the Royal Collection reflects her own reverence for the throne – and, possibly, her own uneven path to it...
Who was Queen Mary?
Originally engaged to two princes, Queen Mary became the queen consort of King George V of Great Britain and was the mother of kings, Edward VIII and George VI. She is also the grandmother of the current reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
Although her mother was descended from King George III of Great Britain, they were only minor members of the British Royal Family. Before Mary's 16th birthday, the family became mired in debt, and from 1883 to 1885 they lived with relatives on the Continent in order to economise. During this time, Mary served as her mother's unofficial secretary, helping to organise parties and social events.
However, it all changed when she became a debutante in 1886 and was introduced to court as the "only unmarried British princess who was not descended from Queen Victoria".
1. Queen Victoria holding Prince Edward Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII) with Queen Mary and next to her Queen Alexandra. 2. The current reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II as a child beside her grandparents King George V and Queen Mary.
At age 24, she became engaged to Prince Albert Victor (known as Eddy), the Prince of Wales and eldest son of Edward VII of Great Britain. The choice of Mary as his bride was influenced by Queen Victoria, who was very fond of her, her strong character and sense of duty. It was hoped that the match would help cure ‘Eddy’ of his general ‘apathy and disinclination to work’. Tragically though, Albert died a few weeks before their wedding, during the influenza pandemic of 1891-92.
During her mourning period, Albert's younger brother, Prince George, Duke of York, became close to Mary, and in May 1893, he proposed. They were married in July of that year and went on to have six children. Though the children were cared for by a nanny, as was the tradition with many upper-class families, Mary was a caring mother who spent time with her children, revealing her fun-loving side and teaching them history and music.
From left to right, The Prince of Wales later Edward VIII, Prince Henry the Duke of Gloucester, The Princess Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood, King George V, Prince Albert of York, later George VI, Queen Mary of Teck, and Prince George, Duke of Kent.
As queen consort from 1910, Mary supported her husband through the First World War, his ill health, and major political changes arising from the aftermath of the war. After George's death in 1936, she became queen mother when her eldest son, Edward VIII, ascended the throne. To her dismay, he abdicated later the same year in order to marry twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. She supported her second son, George VI, until his death in 1952. Queen Mary died the following year, during the reign of her granddaughter Elizabeth II, who had not yet been crowned. Among her legacies, an ocean liner, a battlecruiser, and a university were named in her honour.
The Last Princess of Imperial Russia
1. One of the previous owners of the fan was Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna of Russia, wife of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovitch. 2. Princess Vera as a child with her mother Elizabeth and brother George in 1914. 3. Princess Vera just before her death in 2001.
Famed as being the last princess of Imperial Russia, Vera was the great-granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. She was born in the Russian Empire and was a childhood playmate of the younger children of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia. She was eight years old when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated and World War I broke out, in the summer of 1914. Vera was with her parents and her brother George in Germany visiting her relatives in Altenburg and found themselves trapped in enemy territory before managing to get back to Russia after an intervention from Empress Auguste Viktoria.
MANY LOSSES DURING THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION
During WWI and later in the Russian Revolution she lost much of her family. Vera's older siblings had joined the Russian army, and her favourite brother Oleg was killed in action. The following year, her father died of a heart attack in her presence and by age 12, she had to escape revolutionary Russia, fleeing with her mother and brother George to Sweden and spending the rest of her long life in exile.
ON THE RUN FROM THE SOVIETS
After the death of her mother and brother, Vera lived in Germany through the difficult years of World War II. She worked as a translator in a camp for prisoners of war. However, officials of the Third Reich eventually removed the princess from her position because she had tried to help fellow prisoners. At the end of the war, when Vera became aware that Altenburg was to fall under the Soviet sphere of influence, she fled on foot along with her cousin Hereditary Prince Georg Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg (1900-1991) to Hamburg, where she settled in 1946.
In 1951, the princess moved to New York and is quoted to have reasoned "because Europe was a bit too near the Communists." She established herself very modestly and actively worked with the Tolstoy Foundation and other charities that helped to provide aid to Russian children and people in need.
DEATH AND LEGACY
On 11 January 2001, Her Royal Highness Princess Vera Konstantinovna of Russia died at the Tolstoy Foundation's elderly care home in Valley Cottage, New York.
She was a stateless person since the fall of the Russian Empire, Vera had traveled under a Nansen passport; she never took foreign citizenship.
"She had a very difficult life. Her brothers were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks, thrown into a mine shaft with hand grenades a few days after the execution of the imperial family. We were inundated, mostly after the fall of the Soviet Union, after people realised there was this Romanoff living in the United States that bridged the generations. People would come from all over the world. We finally had to restrict them - she was old, and it was emotional for her. She lived really to help. She worked on boards, helping the elderly, children, orphans refugees. She was very involved. She was a modest, unassuming grand lady. With her death comes an end of era. She closes a chapter to that generation of the Romanoffs."
- Xenia Woyevodsky, Executive Director of the Tolstoy Foundation.