One seems to come closest to the famous in their bedrooms despite the fact that by the time the chambers are thrown open to the public their occupants are long since dead. The oddest and most neglected (I was the only visitor) was at Field Marshall Rommel’s wartime beach villa outside Tunis: the bedroom was dark and stark with a narrow bunk (“time to turn over, time to turn out”) and a scorched lampshade which looked as though the Desert Fox had used too high a bulb wattage. A whiff of Tabac still seemed to hang around the dank plunge bath. Across the Atlantic, Noel Coward’s Jamaican bedroom is full of creeping damp and no glass in the windows. Only slightly mildewed, “That Man” talc still lurks heroically in the bathroom cabinet.
Queen Victoria’s cosy Sterbezimmer may be seen at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Here she died in the arms of the Kaiser in a surprisingly simple room with a lot of flowered chintz, the carpet patterned with pink roses. A wooden nightstand by the big double bed no doubt contains a you-know-what within. Over the pillow hangs a coloured photo of the Prince Consort, taken lying cold and dead in 1861. A painting of Albert as a fairy prince in armour stands on an easel by the bed, the first sight meeting the old Queen’s eyes as she awoke. What we don’t see, maybe surprisingly to the modern mind, are the ritual appurtenances of clothing, hair dressing and adornment which of course would be stored next door in the dressing room – that room once so full of life and interest and bustle, sometimes doubling also as bathroom and wardrobe.
There at a gloriously ornate turquoise and gold Sevres glass with romping cherubs cavorting beneath a crown Victoria gazed into her own blue eyes, round as buttons, and watched her hair being polished with silk before being dressed: “60 years a Queen and always the same hairstyle!” said my pompadour’d and disapproving great grandmother. Here, too, Victoria dabbed a little perfume on a handkerchief or on one of the huge lace fans she favoured. Whereas it was considered then de trop for a respectable woman to scent her skin, the faint sillage from a wisp of fluttering fabric was permitted. In youth Victoria loved brilliant striking floral scents – E Coudray was one of her suppliers and Creed another. Think of her embowered in the roses of Fleurs de Bulgarie, that extraordinarily dense bouquet of crimson Bulgarian roses, which smells at first of pear drops, honey and nectar: some people find that the intensity of it gives them gooseflesh, makes the hair on their arms rise. But wait for the rose attar to open, soften and flower on what smells like a golden ottoman of ambergris, musk, tonka and vanilla. You come to a uniquely stately, confident and womanly scent and one that in the extraganza and concentration of its simple formula gives an idea of the monolithic, massive nature and structure of Victorian perfumes.
I leave you at the toilet table of Marie Antoinette, as described by J B B Nichols; that gold and crystal altar wheeled forward like Juggernaut to the windows among the lilac bouquets and peacock feathers of the cavernous Versailles bedroom.
‘This was her table, these her trim outspread
Brushes and trays and porcelain cups for red;
Here sate she, while her women tired and curled
The most unhappy head in all the world.’
Image from english-heritage.org.uk