Curating The Curators

The Bookworm

 

“And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon…she came to prove him with hard questions…And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon ..” ¤

So we see that both Balkis, Queen of Sheba and Solomon the Great were early curators and collectors of perfumes: maybe the first of their type actually recorded. The Book of Kings goes on to mention Solomon’s unique hoard of precious almug  – probably red sandalwood – from which were carved divinely scented pillars for the great Temple at Jerusalem. “There came no such almug trees, nor were seen unto this day.” ¤¤

Nowadays we are all curators. Curating is what they call a sexy – if lazy –  concept: it has come to mean whatever you want it mean. The word “curate” (both the noun and the verb) derive from the Latin root ‘cura’ – ‘care’. When I was a little boy the word made me somewhat wary. I didn’t like the look of it, written down. It had a hardness to it; and of course it also had a medical association. The cure of patients and the cure of souls. Hence those flocks of curates in church circles – those strange unfledged semi-vicars, as they seemed to a child. Then, curates still had an air that was partially sinister and partially foolish¤¤¤. And of course I found it hard to differentiate the word ‘curate’ from that infallibly deadly poison – ‘curare’ – which supposedly tipped the arrows of Amazonian savages. Then there were those vague and alarming – though usually unseen – curators in museums. “The Curator will have you!” was almost as powerful a threat as that of the Policeman coming to get you or – in public gardens – the “Parky”.

I would say that we at Les Senteurs curate our perfumes in the true sense. We select, display, preserve and care for them. We may choose to edit judiciously certain brands from time to time, just as the Man at the Museum relegates the stuffed polar bear to the basement for a spell and replaces him with a Meissen monkey orchestra. We protect, clean, promote and exhibit our scents to their best advantage. Like guardians of antique fabrics or paintings we try to protect fragrances from excessive illumination, but unlike an art gallery we are keen on the hands-on approach. All our hundreds of scents have a tester bottle and that tester is there to be sprayed. So come on in and have a go. Benefit from our curation to build your own collection.

For collecting is quite a different thing.
Speaking only for myself, collecting is haphazardly amassing. In my old Dutch Booke of Magicke¤¤¤¤ I read a most accurate and disconcerting insight into my astrological traits. Folk born on my day are “…generally open to less conventional art forms, diversions and entertainments…they are often art or antique collectors with an eye for those apparently ordinary items from bottle caps to brass door knobs..” My father, also an Aries, left behind boxes of crab & scallop shells, pipe cleaners and feathers.

My own collection of perfumes, by virtue of my being in the business for so long, is extensive but rambling. The current bottles are decently stored, in that I keep them in the dark, well padded and at a pretty constant temperature. Empty flacons are moved on to a somewhat primitive Cabinet of Curiosities where they sit alongside grit from the Valley of the Kings and a dried rose from Samarkand.  But I am not one for ordering, labelling and precise regimentation. I love the idea of all that – I admire it –  but in practice I like to be fooling around with my treasures; having them about me like toys and talismans. I like them portable and accessible. I like them “live”. Also, I am messy.

People are kind enough to show me wonderful exuberant photos of their own perfume collections. Here one sees literally hundreds – often thousands – of filled bottles, heaped up before mirrors or on glass tables like the treasures of King Solomon’s mines or the contents of the late Queen Mary’s Faberge vitrine. “Stuff it all in!” as my dear friend Felicia used to say.  I feel these collectors have the right spirit. Perfume may be a form of poetry but it’s got to be poetry in motion. A working collection is the right collection. Perfumes cannot be pinned to boards like poor dried bees or butterflies.

It’s rather like that other modern craze: that of tracing your ancestors. Some do this as an academic mathematical exercise. Others are primarily interested in the characters, individuals and human oddiities they unearth: the magic and mystery of the ever-developing gene pool.

And so with fragrance. A great part of its fascination lies in how each perfume relates to another: how the perfume families first defined over a century ago grow increasingly diffuse and more elaborately defined. Amazing hybrids and mutations appear as off-shoots but the great pure-blooded ancestors still stand in the background, albeit face-lifted, dieted and genetically modified. The good curator and the devoted collector know that the essence of perfume is just that: using it and smelling it. As for instruction, let the fragrance speak for itself.

¤ 1 Kings, 10. Passim.

¤¤ I also remember ‘La reine de Saba’ tea rooms in the shadows of Chartres Cathedral, decades ago: scented with madeleines, saffron buns, ginger bread,  fine teas – and, of course, the eponymous cakes.

¤¤¤ from Charlotte Bronte – and Mr Punch’s notorious egg – to Enid Blyton.

¤¤¤¤ THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF BIRTHDAYS by Goldschneider and Elffers, Viking Penguin 1994.

“Open Now The Crystal Fountain!” – torrents of scent…

chateau-versailles-jet-d'eau-grand-petit-canal-xavier-veilhan

‘THE MALTESE FALCON’ (1941) – Lee Patrick comes into Bogart’s office, rolling her eyes at a perfumed calling card just handed in at the outer door by Peter Lorre

“Gardenia…..”

” Quick, darling! In with him!”

A dear friend and client of Les Senteurs wrote to us last week to suggest we have a fountain – what is sometimes now called a water feature – installed at the shop. As she said, imagine the cooling musical sound and delicious odour of fragranced droplets  –  maybe rosewater – splashing into a marble basin filled with gold and silver fish. We would all sit around the atrium on cushions stuffed with rose petals and musk, sipping sherbet and drinking jasmine tea. So then we ruminated on the Palatine palaces of Roman emperors, running with conduits of violet perfume; Francis Kurkdjian’s glorious installations at Versailles; Eugene Rimmel’s multi-spouted Fountain of Perfumes at the Crystal Palace in 1851; and Clover Carr’s fantasy of the eau de cologne pond in “Katy”. All excellent precedents and no wonder we got rather carried away. Alas! Perfume shops are not run by peris, djinns and houris. Someone has to cash up the till and dust the shelves. It’s not all glamour.

So, just as Rudyard Kipling wrote of ‘The Glory of the Garden’:

‘Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing:-” Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade

While better men than we go out and start their working lives

At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives….’

I scratch around in my back yard with my dad’s penknives and a trowel. I don’t know how I’ve raised such beauty as now manifests by the back door. No credit to me, I’m sure. I’m an old duck that’s hatched a swan in a bucket of compost. The famous tuberoses are now 36″ high – I measured on Sunday morning. They are like bolted sticks of asparagus; the leaves, so profuse in spring, have dwindled to almost nothing. Very strong and tough the stalks are, with no need for staking. At the top of each stem is a cluster of snow white ovoid buds tinged with pale apple-blossom pink; like the toes of a Norse goddess with nails tipped with shells from the sea shore. Msr. Rimmel tells us in his Book of Perfume that no more than two stellar flowers open daily. He’s not precisely correct here – I see rather more – but the blooming is certainly steady and leisured. No doubt there has been some genetic alteration in the bulbs since 1866.¤ What I must do next is to discover when – and if – I should lift the bulbs after flowering; and how to nurture them over the winter to ensure another crop in 2017. Rest assured I shall pass all this on to you. Having spent all my working life with the extracts and infusions of tuberose, how fascinating it is now to watch the plant grow and bloom, not on human skin but in accordance with the rules of Nature.

One thing I have learned is that the plants appreciate almost unlimited watering. Dousing, in fact, at the roots. It seems to me that this prevents the buds at the very top of the stalk from shrivelling before they open: something you often see in shop-boughten tuberoses. (I have noted, too, that those beautiful and supposedly drought-resistant clove-scented pinks and carnations will also lose their buds in infancy if kept too strictly short of water).

Next to the tuberoses stand two pots of  tower lilies: they have grown nowhere near the promised six feet (though this is only year one), but they are billowing out clouds of intoxicating swooning perfume. At dusk the combination of voluptuous floral smells is almost too much. Some visitors are overwhelmed.  The lilies smell something like Malle’s Dries Van Noten but with a touch of ginger, too; the white and gold flowers have a sensuous smooth coolness like that of perfect skin. I put two fallen petals in a saucer of water: these fragranced my bedroom for days.

The plants stay outside most nights pumping forth their nocturnal mega- sweetness to the owls and foxes. However, it was blowing a gale last Sunday so I brought the tuberose indoors and kept her overnight in the passage between kitchen and back door: there’s a glass door at either end. The next morning that space was heavy with elements of every tuberose perfume I have ever smelled – wreathing, blending and embracing. Very fascinating and instructive: everything from Carnal Flower to Fracas, but dominated maybe by Pierre Guillaume’s Tubereuse Couture, sweet and sugary and smokily candified.

The other week in this column I was musing about dogs in perfume shops and wondering how they protect their poor noses. (The tuberoses don’t keep the local cats away from my doves and goldfinches, by the way). One of my supportive regular readers has sent me a piece from a recent edition of the Times newspaper concerning a new type of novelty collar which is designed to curb barking dogs. As the animal sounds off, a powerful burst of citronella – which dogs apparently loathe – spurts from its harness. The fright of the sudden odour is supposed to silence the dog. Animal charities have condemned this device, repeating the old circus adage that any form of cruelty has no part whatsoever in corrective training. Too right. One thinks of customers taken by surprise by zealous spritzers on duty at the doors of a department store. A nasty shock which can put one off perfume for life.

Drop by at Les Senteurs and let us guide you by the hand to the metaphorical crystal fountain of fragrance! Where all is done by kindness and every prospect pleases. You’ll be so welcome.

MARIE ANTOINETTE: an old acquaintance

marie antoinette

Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette, 1938

 

Contemporary travellers and observers  had certain things to say about eighteenth century European cities and the urban assault on the senses.  London was the noisiest, Amsterdam the cleanest and Paris by far the dirtiest. Paris smelled appalling. Unlike London, pre-Revolutionary Paris still had no pavements and the city was essentially medieval in lay-out. The effluvia of its streets gave its name to a racy tint of shot silk  – “boue de Paris” – a  striking example of the perverse – not to say morbid – desire of fashionable Society to roll in the gutter. The mud glowed, you see, just as the colours changed in the fabric: the muck of the avenues was all phosphorescent with rot. Where it splashed and spattered, the filth burned holes in clothes and scarred delicate skin. Another new colour, a purplish-brown, was christened “puce” – the colour of a flea when engorged with blood. Maybe because the structure and etiquette of French aristocratic circles had become so rarefied and stultified, the ton enjoyed childish jokes about potties, enemas, underwear (or the lack of it) and the like. All this silliness was described as being in touch with Nature. Queen Marie Antoinette is said to have had Sevres cups modelled from her own generous bosom for the serving of foaming fresh milk in her let’s-pretend dairy at Rambouillet. A few of these curious “bols-sein” survive today: whether the royal belle poitrine did in fact provide the originals remains to be seen.

Ironic isn’t it? Marie Antoinette spent millions over a very brief period – 15 years – on creating her own fantasy world: and, ever since, the reality of the woman has been lost sight of in an agglomeration of myths and legends. When I was sixteen, I read Stefan Zweig’s celebrated “post-Freudian” biography over and over. I have just returned to it: still fascinating, but now the terrible American translation grates – the Queen lost in “a fit of the blues” and what not. And maybe because I am so much older, I now find this poor woman far more maddening than of yore. Unlike our own dear monarch, she consistently put her foot wrong, sometimes wilfully so. Her defenders tell us how she settled down to home economics after the birth of her children and the devastating shock of the Diamond Necklace Trial. And yet, in those last years just before the storming of the Bastille, she was spending as never before. That new dairy; the constant refurbishment of her rooms and palaces; the famous toy village at the Petit Trianon which was still being added to by the architects Mique, pere et fils¤, right up to the end.

But then you might say, what else was she to do? The Queen of France was expected to keep up appearances and to patronise French arts and industries. Marie Antoinette certainly kept a French perfumer, Msr. Fargeon; and she probably used Houbigant products. Aside from that, I think I have read more twaddle about Marie Antoinette and scent than almost any other person. We read of her collecting samples en route for the guillotine; being recognised by her fragrance as the Royal Family attempted to flee the country in 1791; even wearing perfume in a phial around her neck as she was taken to execution. As her Hungarian biographer Antal Szerb remarked, the Martyred Queen involuntarily attracted libels, slanders, factoids and trolls all her life – and has continued to do so ever since. Like some magnetic Hollywood star – or modern princess, come to that – she was an perpetual object for the projection of hostile, crazy and sometimes pornographic public fantasy.

On August 10 1901 the English tourists Misses Moberly and Jourdain believed they had seen the Queen’s shade – and those of her entourage – in the park at Versailles. They were so convinced by their experience that they set it all down in a book; and well worth reading it is, too¤¤. Wouldn’t it have been remarkable if they had remarked on the phantom’s sillage – a haze of roses, tuberoses, jasmine and amber?¤¤¤ Or, rather, a shifting variation of the same, as Msr. Fargeon had his work cut out thinking up continual new creations. In the days of Louis XV – Marie Antoinette’s grandfather-in-law – Versailles was supposedly known as “le cour parfume”. The great perfume entrepreneur, Eugene Rimmel, writing less than a hundred years later, tells us that Court etiquette demanded the use of a different perfume for every day of the year. True, do you think? Or the retelling of an enchanting fairy tale? It does sound rather like Grimm: the 365 Princesses with their 365 Perfumes.

Re-running Sunset Boulevard (1950) yet again last night on the DVD, I was struck by Billy Wilder’s set-up for the line in which Norma Desmond’s notorious use of tuberose perfume is described. She takes her place on the sofa with a dark gauzy handkerchief floating from her wrist: it is evident that her suffocating scent – the odour of seduction, madness and death – is emanating not from her skin but from the fabric. Women were spraying perfume on their skin by 1950, to be sure; but how interesting to note that, as children of the late Victorian/Edwardian age, Wilder and Swanson still regarded fragrance as a phenomenon that surrounded the human body, but never actually touched it. Marie Antoinette may have soaked her hair & face powder, her fichus, her Trianon muslins in scent – she burned perfumed pastilles in her apartments and had her Sevres bowls filled with flowers and pot pourri – but she would certainly not have dabbed scent on wrists and decollete. That would have been altogether too risky – not only morally objectionable but also probably injurious to health, playing havoc with the volatile humours of the body.

At least we know – and for many of her admirers this is important – that the Queen kept herself clean. It is the done thing to go on about Versailles being as filthy as a Paris street, and no doubt the public rooms accumulated heaps of waste matter and unpleasantness. But the Royal Family had designated bathrooms – I have seen Louis XV’s: most attractive. Marie Antoinette’s bathing suite is now restored and, I believe, open to view – at a price. Her contemporaries thought the Queen bathed more often than was wise. Having a bath was then regarded as more medicinal than hygienic. Marie Antoinette went into the tub wearing what Quentin Crisp used to call a “minimum risk” kind of nightgown, well buttoned up to the neck. For she never bathed alone, but always surrounded by a retinue of ladies. The Queen of France may have given birth in public but for bathing she covered her modesty.

My more mature readers will just about remember –  as I do – the puritan days when it was still considered boorish, common and gauche to praise anything. Delicious food, a delightful personal appearance, lovely clothes were never commented upon in polite society. They were verboten topics, same like money, politics and religion. Marie Antoinette’s contemporaries may well have been enthralled and bewitched by her perfume but no memoir or letter ever refers to it. Marie Antoinette is remembered for her seductive walk, her stately carriage, her beautiful hair, her complexion – “literally a combination of lilies and roses”. But not for her scent. That would be going simply too far, even for her most implacable enemies. Cosmetics, yes: we hear a lot about the royal rouge and powder. Perfume, no.

Fragrance two hundred years ago – as now – remains the most personal and intimate of topics. When did you last read an interview in which the subject’s smell was referred to?

Precisely.

¤ for which creative endeavours they paid with their heads during the Terror of 1794.

¤¤ ‘An Adventure’,1911.

¤¤¤ as ghosts are noted for the odours which attend them.

Dog Days

Toby the Pug 1986-1999 Image from the author's collection!

Toby the Pug 1986-1999 Image from the author’s collection!

 

There has been a strange and rather lovely odour all around the house this week. Perhaps it’s me? But all I have worn in this warm close weather is Atelier Cologne’s Cedrat Enivrant. Now that’s a glorious greeny-gold glittering citrus; and what I can smell here is a deep woody floral; soft and pervasive and lulling. It seems to be everywhere, despite the open doors and windows. It was only intensified by my darling sister-in-law’s visit. She came over for lunch bearing two large bags of magazines dated 1952 and ’53: pristine souvenir numbers of The Sphere, The Illustrated London News and Picture Post commemorating variously the death of George VI and the Coronation of Elizabeth II. Amongst all the paperwork was a bar of amber and sandalwood soap: I wrapped it up in my clean underwear, like Betty Macdonald’s tubercular friend in The Plague and I¤. There were also two very old bottles of Floris room scent – Ormonde – the colour of old amber, slightly crusted, and smelling delicious. Rich, voluptuous and assured: the scent of country mansions, polished up with beeswax and filled with vases of stocks and sweet peas.

Barbara Cartland used to say that she knew from a strong fragrance of clove carnations manifesting in the house that her deceased brother Ronald was about the place. You wonder, don’t you? This morning, out and about at the shops, on the street and in the garden, all I can smell is a creamy sweet coconut, rather like gorse. But there is no gorse, and there were no coconuts. When I went down the aisle of Laundry Requisites at the supermarket – a well-known household name – the detergents assailed me like wasps. My face prickled all over as though from heat rash; a myriad invisible chemicals stimulating my skin, though apparently safely contained in their cardboard and plastic wrappers. Over-sensitive at the moment: very strange!

I have just finished a rather nasty but very gripping book of long short stories by Daphne du Maurier¤¤. She is good on scent and its implications. A bored Marquise plays with a scent stopper as she plays with people’s lives. A seductively brittle cinema usherette may be a phantom and is certainly a murderess. Contrary to usual fictional convention this ominous figure exudes the most delicious perfume to beglamour her garage mechanic suitor:

” I’m not a great one for liking scent. It’s too often cheap and nasty, but this was different. There was nothing stale about it, or stuffy, or strong; it was like the flowers they sell up in the West End…three bob a bloom sort of touch…and it was so darn good, the smell of it … that it nearly drove me mad”.

The title story is done with great subtlety – the death of a wife is swiftly followed by her haunting of her widower in the form of a deformed apple tree in the garden. The tale is told by the husband. We slowly realise that it is he – and not, as he would have us believe, the late wife – who is a monster of self-indulgence and misery. The barren tree flowers in a cascade of over-ripe, decaying blooms which repel rather than attract. “Instead of blossoming to life, to beauty, it had somehow, deep in nature, gone awry and turned a freak”.  Or so the widower perceives the flowers¤¤¤.  When a fallen branch of apple wood is sawn to feed the fire, the smell is not fresh and aromatic but “sweet, sickly…greenish…turning his stomach”.

We all know how sensitive animals can be to the Unseen. A lady told me the other day that whenever she sprays Etat Libre D’Orange’s Putain des Palaces her tom cat goes absolutely beserk. It’s like cat mint to him. He becomes skittish, roguish, even disconcertingly amorous. I know many horse owners who avoid wearing perfume when they visit their stables. Apparently our most august fancier of horseflesh, the Queen herself, is amongst them. Fragrance is said to unsettle, even arouse, the equine. Both Fracas and Chanel No 5 have been said to have had disturbing effects on stallions.  Now, we at Les Senteurs are always happy to welcome a canine visitor, on the arm of his owner. But I always marvel at how calm dogs remain in our palace of 1,000 scents. When you think of the bombardment of smells on those little supersensitive snouts you’d think the animals would run half mad. I guess what it is, is this: in the interests of his own sanity, the dog remains involuntarily onosmic to odours that have no possible relevance to his needs. He picks up only what is needed for his comfort, feeding, preservation and – if in his natural state – his reproductive interest. Am I somewhere near the truth? Vets, please write in. Makes you wonder about Putain des Palaces though.

¤ “..’he brought me a whole roasted chicken and twelve chocolate eclairs and that’s all I’m gonna eat until next Thursday’. I asked how she managed to keep food in her stand as it was absolutely forbidden.  She said, ‘Oh, I wrap it all up in my clean pyjamas.'”

¤¤ “The Apple Tree” first published by Victor Gollancz, 1952.

¤¤¤ We are reminded of the abundant and beautiful but sinister white roses which fill frame after frame of The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.

Fish Pie Makes You Cry/ Custard Drives You Mad

Odilon Redon - The Egg, 1885

Odilon Redon – The Egg, 1885

 

The 10th Earl of St Germans died on July 15th. His long and idiosyncratic obituary in The Times (July 19th) observed:

‘He led a full life and would present all his female companions with bottles of Fracas perfume.”

It’s nice to know, isn’t it? As Kay Walsh used to say.
And, aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the heat? It nearly did for me. As usual, I turned for empathetic comfort to that first chapter of ‘What Katy Did At School’, in which the highly-strung Elsie Carr goes nearly off her head during an especially hot and prolonged Ohio Indian summer. It’s a baking, dried-up October and Elsie begs to be sent out of town to stay with a family friend – Mrs Worrett – in the country. Alas! The experience turns out to be a nightmare, and there’s the moral: be careful what you wish for. Be wary of what you set your heart on: even if it’s a bottle of Fracas.

“Sometimes the truest kindness is in giving people their own unwise way.”

It all begins well with the journey out – “part of the road ran through woods…the dense shade kept off the sun, and there was a spicy smell of evergreens and sweet fern.” But as we all know, it is better to travel than to arrive, and Mrs Worrett’s stark pumpkin-coloured house is a dreary disappointment. “The spare chamber was just under the roof. It was very hot, and smelled as if the windows had never been opened since the house was built.” The food is worse. Susan Coolidge does not exactly describe its smell but she brings it right under our noses:

“..the room felt stiflingly warm, and the butter was so nearly melted that Mrs Worrett had to help it with a teaspoon. Buzzing flies hovered above the table, and gathered thick on the plate of cake….they sat in the dusk; Mr Worrett smoking his pipe and slapping mosquitoes outside the door…”.

Elsie is weepy and “her head ached violently”. By next morning she is in a state of prostration – we hear all about the horrors of a feather bed in a heat wave –  and is advised to “lie on the lounge in the best room, and amuse herself with a book”.

Can the sense of smell drive one mad I wonder? I think it might. If all the other senses can affect the mind adversely, then why not scent? Elsie’s experiences always remind me of a “true life” criminal case which took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, just twenty years  after ‘Katy’ was written.

I first heard about Lizzie Borden in an episode of The Munsters on TV when I was a tot. Grandpa Munster produced an axe from a trunk and muttered something about the Bordens, whereat my Victorian grandmother laughed uproariously. Lizzie was a large and rather attractive New England girl: a pillar of the community who lived with her sister, father and stepmother in a clapboard house in New England. One terrible and boiling hot August morning in 1892, while Lizzie claimed to be occupied with chores in the barn, her parents were horribly hacked to death in the house. Miss Borden was subsequently arrested, tried for their murder but acquitted.

What aroused much comment at the time – and continues to do so – was the curious life style of the Bordens. Despite it being an exceptionally hot week, the family – and the maid – had dined on the same boiling of mutton soup every day for a week. The house was full of flies and in the back kitchen were found soaking pails and tubs of “ladies’ unmentionables”. Everyone in the house – unsurprisingly – seemed to be suffering from gastric and other “upsets” at the time of the crime. At least one writer has wondered as to whether the appalling concomitant smell in the family home – especially of that mutton broth, perpetually on the simmer in sweltering temperatures – may have altered the balance of Lizzie’s mind, to the point of turning her homicidal.

We shall never know now; but the scent of certain plants has been said, at different times and in various cultures, to drive you crazy. Oleanders, daturas, cypresses and tuberoses all have their various effects. And think of Sherlock Holmes and that terrifying root-derived Devil’s Foot powder. I write this in a garden full of the evening perfumes of mint, tomato plants, lavender, marjoram – and, especially, lilies smelling of sweet lemon vanilla cream. All is perfection. But from time to time I get a particular scent on the brain, to an oppressive and infuriating extent. The key point is, that this is normally and nominally a pleasing fragrance: an odour I love. But something then short-circuits and renders it so grating, invasive and throbbingly insistent that I feel exactly like Sir John Gielgud at that famous Mozart operatic rehearsal: “O DO stop that TERRIBLE music!” Like an animal, I have to plunge into water to be rid of the smell, as a fox is said to escape his fleas.

The fox’s fleas sail off downstream on a hank of hair: likewise, by this time, the smell has become its own entity. I have written before in this column of once going after work to the swimming baths; doing a length; and then disconcertingly meeting a cloud of my own fragrance brooding above the waters as I made the return. “Meeting Myself Coming Back”.

There’s nowt so queer as folk – thank Heaven! Nor so strange and unpredictable as scent.’

“Just Like a Little Bit of Leather”

shanghai express

 

Perfume and leather, leather and perfume: the trajectories of both are forever crossing and merging. For centuries, the tanneries of Europe used raw human excreta to cure hides and skins: that’s how the Golden Dustman in Our Mutual Friend makes an honest maintenance, collecting the waste of London streets to sell on at a handsome profit. (‘Dust’ is by way of being a dainty euphemism for what Mr Boffin trades in). Therefore, for our forefathers, the heavy and heady scenting of leathers was not only a sensual pleasure but also a cruel necessity.¤

On the battlefield, in the armoury and the stables, leather has been a virile medium of aggression and restraint material for millennia. The more elegant use of it in clothing and furnishings had its first tremendous vogue in Tudor and Elizabethan times. Leather was made up into curtains, books, cloaks¤¤, covers, jerkins, mantles, gowns, boots, shoes, gloves: soft supple upholstery for both the home and the body. Marie Stuart went to her death in beautiful slippers of Spanish leather, saved for the occasion and much remarked upon. In that age of display and the beginning of modern ideas of luxurious living, stylish but hard-wearing leather was an ideal medium for gilding, bejewelling and painting: a costly but tough and hard-wearing backdrop for priceless ornamentation.

And the leather was soaked, drenched and saturated in perfumed oils; initially as a camouflage, later according to the dictates of fashion. What started as a precaution and an olfactory necessity became de rigueur among the beau monde ¤¤¤.

Hence the well-known tale of Elizabeth 1st ( blessed like her father Henry VIII with a very sensitive nose) telling a courtier to take himself and his scented leather cape out of her presence before she choked on the smell.

The overly-fragranced fancy man had the ready wit to riposte:

“Tush, Madam! ‘Tis my boots that stink!”

But off he went, just the same.

The old Victorian version of this anecdote has the offending garment smelling of the lavender essence which the Queen is supposed to have loathed. Maybe the Victorians – who loved the modest herb so well – saw a certain symbolism in lavender’s repudiation by the gaudy bawdy Virgin Queen of whom they so greatly disapproved.

The other, ruder, tale concerning Gloriana and smells is that of an Earl who inadvertently and noisily broke wind in the Royal Presence Chamber, before the Faery Queen Herself. Mortified, he buried himself for seven long years (the mystic seven!) in the country. On his return to Court, Elizabeth was like honey; charming, witty and adorable as only she could be. Then, at the end of the audience, as she whisked out of the door in a haze of sweet marjoram and Tudor rose, the Queen said with a dazzling smile:

“We hath quite forgot the f…t!”

We’d better get back to leather, though that is hardly a safer theme. There’s something about it that excites, intrigues and titillates people. Perfume is daring enough, but a touch of leather lends an extra edge of wickedness. What does the smell of leather imply? What gender and ambiguous sexual preferences does it infer? As a perceptive woman – well attuned to her animal nature – said to me the other day, “the thrill of wearing scent is all about anticipating what MIGHT happen when someone smells me…how will the beast react? Love me or eat me?”

Or, of course, both.

Imagine, then, if you are sporting a leather fragrance: what might NOT happen? You are presenting visually and olfactorily as a sexually attractive human being, decked in the dressed skin of a beast. And smelling, deliciously but definitely, of that animal’s hide. Leather is a living entity: the creature that yielded it may be long gone but the dried husk lives on. When I was young, my elders were always reminding me of this: leather must be continually “worked”; that is to say fed, polished¤¤¤¤, dubbined and waxed. Above all, it must be much handled. That was the point of having beautiful kid-bound books or good doe-skin gloves. The more you nurtured them with your own oils, the softer and warmer they became. The more intimate they seemed as they absorbed new life from their owner. The human and the animal elements would elide as the DNA mingled.

The Ancient Greeks explored the implications of all this very fully in their myths which have since been dissected with many a cosmic or Freudian slant. Over and again the old poets and playwrights tell us of beautiful flower-crowned heifers pursued by Zeus; Queen Pasiphae’s passion for a white bull from the sea; the voyeur Actaeon ripped apart by his own hounds after Artemis turns him into a stag.

Provocative. And all those millennia ago.

Leather’s second great fashion vogue, both in clothes and perfume, was during the Roaring Twenties* and the Hungry Thirties. This was the craze my parents remembered: my infant mother’s craving for huge gauntlets; her terror of an aunt’s zippered alligator boots; an uncle’s vast white leather overcoat. No doubt – like the fashion for smoking & all those concomitant tobacco fragrances – this rage for leather referenced the emancipation of women and the late hostilities of the Great War. The scent of fine leather was now cherished for its own sake. The fragrance and the texture emphasised, by contrast, the delicacy and fragility of the feminine form and mystique – or so the style magazines might say, for form’s sake. But the wearing of leather also demonstrated sexual ambivalence: it played lightly with the contemporary fascination with “inversion”**, and hinted at the shocking inadmissible fact that Woman could be the Boss.

One thinks of the great originals of that period who toyed with a leather motif: Vita Sackville West in her pearls, silk shirts and great clumping laced knee boots. Garbo as Queen Christina, swathed from top to toe in Adrian-designed suede. The whole flight of aviatrixes – from Jean Batten (“The Garbo of the skies”) to Amy Johnson.  Dietrich in the then outrageous leather jackets and flying caps of ‘Dishonoured’. And Marlene again in ‘Shanghai Express’, the apogee and pinnacle of sartorial fetish: a wardrobe of gleaming black & white. Harsh wire-like net veils, cascades of glossy feathers, furs, silk, lace, bugle beads. Above all, those magnificent kinky hugely-cuffed gloves: black backs, white palms.  And her perfume? “The Notorious White Flower of China”, blooming in a bed of leather.

The Cutting Edge of Leather: now It’s back for a third time around. Try Six Of The Best – at LES SENTEURS

– Tom Daxon’s VACHETTA –  a deep, fleshy, profound leather with meaty hints.

CUIR PLEINE FLEUR – is a James Heeley cracker – silky, musky and unctuous. The gloves of Cardinal Mazarin.

– Parfumerie Generale’s CUIR VENENUM – the smell of tanneries, orange blossom and sulphur. Lucifer descending, in his traditional suit of black and scarlet leather.

– Mona di Orio’s CUIR – smoky, dry, almost savoury with a strong accord of castoreum and the sweetness of opoponax.

And from Andy Tauer, the Dark Lord of Leather:

LONESTAR MEMORIES – the cult evocation of cowboys around the prairie fire – saddles, boots, harness, wood smoke and coffee.

LONESOME RIDER – Tauer’s new chamois twist; sweeter and sweatier – introducing notes of orris butter, pepper, rose and citrus.’

¤ hence the name of the brand so long and happily represented at LS: ‘Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier” (soon to be repackaged): glove makers of the Baroque being, of necessity, also perfumers.

¤¤ it makes more sense of Sir Walter Raleigh’s puddle incident if we imagine him laying a great leather tarpaulin at Elizabeth’s feet.

¤¤¤ just as patchouli did, centuries later. Primarily a moth repellent, then an indispensable perfume oil.

¤¤¤¤ should you doubt that the heyday of polishing is long gone, conduct your own little survey of dismal shoes on the Tube.

*Erich Von Stroheim in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, recalling his Paramount office back in the ’20’s :

“I remember the walls were covered with black patent leather…”

** “the bucket in the Well of Loneliness”

Artificial Flowers

artificial flowers

 

Half a century ago my grandmother used to walk home from church with an aged retired Canon who had come to live in the village with his unmarried daughter. The Tomlinson pair lived “round the back”, in a characterless modern bungalow on a new development. The lean and egregious daughter made of their garden a bizarre work of kitsch art. People came on the sly from miles around to see Miss Tomlinson’s garden. She didn’t like you to stand and peer: you had to walk briskly past with a discreet but searching “eyes right”.

I always aim for a riot of colour in my own plot. Miss Tomlinson achieved this in spades by an obvious but unusual trick: every flower she planted was artificial. Plastic, wax, bakelite, plaster and nylon bloomed in tropical profusion, regardless of the weather and untroubled by blight. There was no regard for season or clime: cattleya orchids, daffodils, chrysanthemums and forsythia were all jammed in together. Roses, snapdragons, snowdrops and daisies were tied onto trees, the garage roof and entwined on the wire perimeter fence.

The Tomlinsons kept a magnificent – if perpetually furious – tabby tom. I never saw his name spelled out or written down. Phonetically, it sounded like Cinna or Sinner: either a nod to classical Rome – “Cinna the Poet”? –  or a reminder of the fallen nature of us all and of the Beast in Man. Both versions seemed possible in this eccentric ecclesiastical menage. The sibilant cat was not allowed beyond the confines of his ersatz paradise. He was contained, raging, amid all this unnatural floral splendour, under a great trellis woven of sprays of pink rubber peach blossom with chrome yellow stamens. “Tiger! Tiger! burning bright”.  Sinner – being in his full and unashamed state of nature, and not “arranged” – added to the strange smells of this garden of very earthly delights. The feral ammonia reek of cat blended on summer days with the olfactory blare of hot plastic; and with that hard, stinging chemical redolence of man-made fibres baked by the sun; a smell that is so unnervingly akin to sweat and human skin. Tarmac, tile, brick and concrete – all the scents of the brave new housing estate – thrummed in the August air, threaded through with the fake sugary haze exuded by the Messrs Softee and Whippy. Those suffocating mobile smells of low-grade vanilla, petrol, gas fridges and heavy syrup were as cloying as the saccharine van chimes. Fluorescent orange and shocking pink fruit – garnish for the Sunday sundaes – swilled around in white plastic pails like fairground goldfish spawned of sugar and Kia-Ora.

Do you remember the garden of talking flowers in “Through The Looking Glass”? Lewis Carroll – almost inconceivably for such an erudite man – had assumed that passion flowers were so named from their connection with an evil temper. When he discovered that they are in fact an ingenious Jesuit metaphor of the Passion of Christ, Carroll was appalled at himself and substituted ferocious tiger lilies for the purposes of his tale. I think today most of us are even vaguer about plants and horticulture: we don’t have the time. Botany – with its walks and pressing and curating – is a subject that has long dropped off school curriculae. A pity. For most of us the science of flowers is a reductio ad absurdam. Either they have an agreeable smell – or they don’t. Period. I remember Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1960’s selling a whole flower market of pre-perfumed silk and velvet blooms to adorn one’s tenue de soiree. Individually packaged in exciting cellophane and mounted on tiny gilt pins, they must have been rather old-fashioned even then. Nontheless they seemed infinitely desirable even if the camellias, the poppies and gardenias all smelled alike: a kind of Essence of Superior Soap.

Nowadays I find artificial flowers – despite their having never been more lifelike – almost unbearably triste. At least, that is, artificial flowers made of fabric. I grant you that Queen Alexandra’s jewelled garden of Faberge flowers – with diamond tremblant dew drops all complete –  has a genuine charm and beauty.  But a vase of dust-gathering blue rayon carnations is a sorry sight. I think, you see, it harks back to that paradox we discussed the other week. Flowers – like perfume – are not intended to live forever. Trying to defy this ruling of Mother Nature can only lead to dreariness and disillusion unless, in the process of copying, another work of art is generated.

Mind you, real flowers so bizarre that they appear artificial have a great charm. I revel in the explosive glorious grotesquerie of strelitzias – those spiky orange and blue bird of paradise blooms so inappropriately named for George III’s severe and homely Queen. I get excited by orchids and calceolarias; carnivorous fly traps and lobster claw cacti. I’ve got some giant tower lilies incubating in pots: I don’t think they’re going to reach the promised six feet – not this year – but they are full of buds and I can’t wait for the supreme moment of revelation.

Perfumers know they have to offer an impression of a flower: not an exact and accurate reflection, but the famous Lie That Tells The Truth¤. You can talk about Head Space Technologies and Living Flower Vacuums till you’re blue in the face but too literal and accurate a translation of a plant’s scent does not, on the whole, amuse. Perfumers are chary of reproducing the odours of traditional cottage-garden flowers. Sweet pea, wallflower, petunia, lily and lilac are rarely attempted. Even jasmine – in isolation – is rare. Perfumers say – and I do ask them, on your urgent behalf – that such notes when used in soliflores, rather than as allusive components of an intricate pattern, appear crude and hackneyed; too unsophisticated for modern taste. Those brave souls and gallant hearts currently taking our Great Ingredient Challenge know how hard it can be to identify concentrated natural oils, however apparently familiar the source. We love what appears to be a blushing crimson rose no matter how little actual rose oil may be present.

The old legend that Guerlain’s glorious Nahema has not a drop of natural rose within it may or may not be true, but it shows us that our noses play us wonderful tricks. How much more delightful than that novelty of my youth: an Incredibly Lifelike Plastic Rosebud, given away FREE with every packet of soap flakes, and Genuinely Indistinguishable from a living Etoile d’Hollande!”

¤ as expounded by both Picasso and Susan Sontag.