Eugenie, Eugenie…

news_story_detail-DOSSIER  EUGENIA DE MONTIJO

Do you find the Empress Eugenie a sympathetic character? I never know quite what to make of her; I find her hard to get close to. Her numerous portraits are theatrical and glamorous to a degree, especially the glorious set pieces by Winterhalter with their sensual and tactile treatment of his sitter’s luxurious garments and draperies. Romantic, too, are the circumstances of Eugenie’s long life: the exotically mixed and mysterious ancestry; her Scottish blood; her wooing by Napoleon III – “the only way to my bed is through a well-lit chapel”; her role in creating the concept of haute couture and making Paris the fashion centre of the world. And then there are the frivolous but delicious legacies left by Eugenie to the world: a mauve passion flower; an amethyst tiara in the Louvre: a rakish style of hat, re-introduced to fashion by Garbo and even more popular the second time around. Above all, the crinoline is forever associated with her and with her pet designer Worth – the nice boy from Lincolnshire who spoke with a strong Northern accent in a “low deep voice” and was unable to draw faces or limbs: he cut them out from photos and lithographs and stuck them on to his sumptuous designs.

Then, too, Eugenie was fabulously lovely: or so Worth and Winterhalter made her. She was slim and of middling height ( 5’5″) with cascades of red gold hair put up in chignons and ringlets. She had violet eyes, perfect skin and the most extraordinary eyebrows which she made her signature. You can recognise her in any likeness by these quizzically raised butterfly brows which lift like antennae from the outer corner of the eye. They give her a somewhat affected look, very distinctive. The Empress kept them pencilled dramatically black to contrast with the dazzling brilliance of her complexion. Her teeth were good: like many of her Imperial contemporaries she had a state-of-the-art American dentist, Mr Thomas Evans, who was destined to save more than the Empress’s teeth when the Second Empire collapsed in 1870. He whisked her into a cab and off to a 50 year exile in England before the Paris mob could subject her to the fate of Marie Antoinette: a circumstance of which she had always a superstitious dread.

We think of Eugenie when we use her preferred Roger & Gallet soap, and Guerlain’s blissful Eau Imperiale. The latter is supposed to have been commissioned for her, but then her unattractive husband (“a very awkward shape”) liked it so well that he made off with it for his own use ( as Samuel Pepys often did with his wife’s accessories). Above all Eugenie’s aura can still be smelled in Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie, for which Creed devised the original formula just as the Second Empire collapsed. If ever there was a scent to be smelled against a background of ermine, sable, violet velvet and pink silk this is the one. Jasmin is soft but penetrating, headily warm, all-embracing; somnolent and sleepily erotic, well-laced with iris and aphrodisiac vanilla. Maybe the scent is in fact too sexy for the eponymous wearer; or perhaps it is ironically piquant that a woman said to be so prudish and uninterested in sex should apparently have sprinkled such a slow-burning scorcher about her person.

Whether Creed kept up with the ex-Empress in her retirement at Farnborough is unknown. Mabell Airlie who visited the 77 year old Eugenie at home in 1902 was horrified at “the way …she had let herself go – like any old French peasant woman”. The famous brows, now white, were clumsily and only partially blacked in and the Empress’s once formidable sense of decorum seems to have slipped: ” There were some other English guests at tea, but when the Empress told – in English – an impossibly indelicate story about two swans they were so shocked that they rose hastily and took their leave”. In photographs of this period and later Eugenie is appallingly changed and aged, even frightening, and always in the same huge and terrible hat: the sort of old lady who scares little children.

By the age of 53 she had lost her crown, her sister, husband and only child, the Prince Imperial. Her son fell in the Zulu Wars and his body was brought home to be buried at Windsor. When I went to pay my respects I found his tomb in the centre of the St George’s Chapel souvenir shop: tourists wrote their post cards on his chest. But despite Eugenie’s tragic circumstances she didn’t lack for admirers: Queen Victoria (“ma chere soeur”) always adored her, with the passion of a homely person for a beauty. Even in her 70’s Eugenie attracted a passionate suitor in the suffragette and composer Ethel Smyth who wrote that the Empress was more brilliantly lovely than ever. It was to Ethel that Eugenie once revealed her snow white naked leg,”in extenso”, a curious episode which Miss Smyth vividly described in a letter to the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury.* Meanwhile Eugenie herself nurtured a sort of schoolgirl crush on the aged and (in this case) baffled Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, begging in vain for a meeting.

Eugenie lived to be 94 and died in Madrid in 1920, while on a visit to her native Spain. I find her elusive and I suspect her biographers do likewise. No life of her seems really to capture the woman. Perhaps this was part of her charm to contemporaries; maybe too she was a mystery to herself, one of those strange sphinxes without a secret. People who knew her said she was highly emotional, prone to fuss and easily bored; nervous and a martyr to migraine. But she was a survivor – as is her perfume. Come and smell it chez nous.

*For the whole bizarre story see the incomparably marvellous biography “As Good As God, As Clever As The Devil: the impossible life of Mary Benson” by Rodney Bolt, Atlantic Books 2011.

Some smells do linger, Jean…

Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa

“Sillage”: in French the word means the cleft water and foaming ripples that mark the wake of a ship; it also denotes the trail of an animal. There’s a clue in that, for by the English it is used almost exclusively to mean the waft of perfume left by the presence or passage of a wearer. Everyone demands intense sillage these days: they even measure it. A sillage of three inches is nugatory; a respectable sillage should reach an arm’s length from the body and no further. And so on. Frederic Malle has even, you might reasonably claim, recreated the odour of sillage in his witty and delicious Cafe Society candle and room scent: une sillage de sillage.

Today people are by and large ready to admit (albeit under pressure) that they are wearing perfume, though they might be reluctant to reveal the name of their Chosen One. For centuries, though, the lovely and desirable sought the alluring enchantment of the sillage without the dubious connotations of the scent that gave it birth. To be seen to wear perfume on the skin was meretricious and dingy; yet to smell delicious was the mark of goodness, of moral integrity. The odour of sanctity revealed that a person was pure, benevolent, divine, without spot or stain. And it would continue to manifest even after death, rendering the mortal remains incorruptible, giving off an redolence of sweet myrrh, roses and what have you. So the aim of the fashionable was to create the illusion that scent emanated from one’s own skin, pores and soul – just as Alexander the Great sweated forth the smell of violets – and not from some dubious potation which aped the divine gift on none-to-clean skin.

“From her fragrant robes a lovely perfume was scattered” reads a hymn to the goddess Demeter. For thousands of years men and women strove for this effect: and contemporary literature – poems, plays, novels – colludes in the illusion. Desirable individuals exude scent from a vague, mysterious source. They are surrounded by an aura of perfume which suffuses their clothing, furniture, possessions and which leaves wonderful sillage when they move: “a faint delicious fragrance hung about her…”. Perfume clings to the objects that the beautiful people touch and it lingers in their rooms, their beds, luggage and hair – “she smells all amber!” But the source of the scent remains vague, unspecified: it manifests spontaneously; it seems to transmit from incense burners, herbs & flowers or from the very air. It comes from the purity of the soul. Nothing so vulgar as a bottle of perfume is mentioned: not in connection with sympathetic characters, at any rate.

I remember, I remember memorable encounters with sillage. I recall the girl with magnificent mahogany hair buying postcards in the National Gallery shop some 20 years ago, and she suffused in a cloud of Guerlain’s Samsara. I have never smelled that lovely but tricky scent so beautifully interpreted. I remember Chanel No 5 at a Covent Garden matinee, stealing over the stalls from a golden-shouldered matron in white linen: far more beguiling than discordant old Prokofiev. Some 30 years ago the ground floor at Harrods always smelled subtly and sweetly of gardenias as though left in the wake of generations of exquisite shoppers dipped in the Floris house exclusive. And most of all I recall midsummer midnight at Luxor in 1992 and the temple of Rameses on the Nile waterfront: everywhere the faint but insistent odour of Oscar de la Renta’s Volupte, the osmanthus & violet hit of the day. It was the scent and epicentre of the hot blue night.

“Some smells do linger, Jean!” as that careful lady in the tv ads used to say. And thank goodness for that. There was a woman picking over Cheddar in the Co-Op the other day who left a gorgeous powdery floral mist behind her – I don’t know what it was; dry, faintly spicy, it hung in the air like a sparkling iridescent bubble. And for sillage connoisseurs everywhere let me put in a word for Andy Tauer’s Sotta la Luna Gardenia – la Stupenda, indeed! Here is a massive and glorious gardenia scent enhanced with all the creamy sandalwood, tonka and vanilla notes exuded by the flower itself; and there’s a mossy, dark, jungly quality that expands its gender relevance. But the volume, the expansion! I like to wear just a drop of this one and follow its progress as it expands and inflates like a great balloon of fragrance. It opens up like the flower which inspires it, from a tight green bud to a voluptuous all-encompassing mantle. This is a case where less is definitely more.

Fire Down Below!

Image: Tate.org.uk

Image: Tate.org.uk

The last time I lit a fire was to burn a packet of indiscreet letters in a flower pot – “Ne brulez pas vos lettres d’amour” – but for many years fire raising was my routine daily activity. Like a votress of Vesta I once had a job which revolved around it so I know that part of the appeal of a fire is that each one has its own character: every one is different. Winter mornings began on my hands and knees raking out the warm clinkers and cinders. For wood fires you leave a bed of fragrant powdery silver ash; a coal fire calls for a tidy grate with an empty basket. I had learned the routine at home from infancy: first the ash bucket, then the twisting of scrap paper into wreaths; the construction of a miniature wig-wam of sticks (small hatchet to hand on the hearth) and then the selection of tiny pieces of coal like black pearls, small enough to delicately hand-feed the new flame. There was also the risky trick of holding a double sheet of newspaper over the fireplace to encourage the fire to draw: this was not comme il faut at our house, being considered both dangerous and a bit of a fraud. I know I was petrified the first time I saw it done by Mrs Woodall from up the road. She was not above overcoming reluctance by also splashing a drop of paraffin about.

My father held that a fire should be kindled simply by skilled and simple laying: anything else was cheating. Maybe this was reaction on his part as his own dad was reckless and flamboyant with fire. Astonishing and wonderful noises, smells and colours billowed out from my grandfather’s hearth: squeezed-out tubes of oil paint, stale cocktail snacks, 78rpm records and once even an old radio were all chucked on. Amazing turquoise, green and orange flames roared up the chimney like Pamela Browne’s visionary fires of Isis in “Cleopatra”.

The biggest cheat in my father’s eyes was the use of firelighters: both an unnecessary waste of money and lacking in artistry. I’m not certain of their current retail status but no doubt you can still buy them. There was a type that looked a bit like meat faggots – lumpy bundles of sawdust and twigs: intriguing but not especially incendiary. And then there were ‘Zip’. Ah! ‘Zip’, once the light of my life. Zips came in a black packet licked by stylized flames. The packet somehow felt slightly damp and to me the contents looked like bars of moist, succulent nougat coconut cake: I always longed to lick them, bite and chew them. You could break or slice them in two (leaving oily crumbs) and the smell was addictive and tempting beyond belief – petrol/napthalene/ paraffin – so dense and literally mouthwatering. It lingered deliciously on one’s fingers but o! the punch of it when a new packet was opened. I never did taste, though: perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this now if I had.

Wood smoke is now a perfumery standard and you can smell coal mixed with rose in Nu_Be’s terrific ‘Carbon’. Coal has a great scent. It’s cold with a sooty dustines, an icy purity and the mysteries of a buried eternity. At home we went down steps into the pitch darkness of the coal house smelling the fossilised woods of one million years BC heaped up next to green logs, dry bark and sawdust. Hares, pheasants and the odd side of beef hanging for the table swung from hooks in the shadowed ceiling. There was a metallic tang from two great axes which were propped against the wall like props from a Tudor epic. It was a shed of horrid romance and imagination.

And we also had bonfires in the garden: the cardinal sin was to light one on a Sunday. (It was also said that a cheque written on a Sunday was automatically invalid). Bonfires of household rubbish, garden waste, soiled cat papers and whatever were heaped up on a concrete plaza beneath the apple trees. Fascinating smells filled our hair and clothes as we spent whole days playing around the pyre, the only pleas from the adults being that we didn’t waste too many matches. I think we got a little high on the smell of those too: the initial exciting hit as the flame takes wing. I imagine we smelled terrible but this I do not recall: like so many things the odour of bonfires seems to have changed with the years due I guess to the quality of things burned. We were like little devotees of Moloch, pleasing the nostrils of the gods with dead leaves and cardboard.

 

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