The Splendour of Splendours

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

 

They were talking about the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut on the radio the other day and I was taken back 20 years to my visit to her mortuary temple on the West Bank of the Nile. To the ancient Egyptians this was the land of the dead, the domain of the setting sun. From a distance the Splendour of Splendours looks like an Art Deco cinema or a 3,000 year old shopping complex rising in three pillared tiers and terraces hewn out of the rockface backing the Valley of the Kings.

On the silver-blue and apricot early morning of my visit the air was full of the scent of fresh mint and sweet basil. 3,500 years ago it was here that Hatshepsut planted the myrrh trees brought back from the Land of Punt, the Realm of the Gods beyond the Red Sea: the guides still show you the plots where the bushes grew between the paving slabs. Among them flowered fragrant henna: strands of hair dyed with the leaves can still be seen on the skulls of certain mummies, though the body of the Woman-King has vanished, probably for ever. Myrrh was a sacred substance in Egypt as in so many other ancient middle eastern cultures. Today we recognise it as a powerful beneficial antioxidant (once prescribed for my mouth ulcers) and a natural preservative, so it is not surprising that the Egyptians used it in embalming, believing it to be the scent of their gods’ immortal flesh, the flesh that was all of gold.

Hatshepsut had it recorded that she was herself semi-divine, conceived by the supreme god Amun. Her royal mother recognised the intrusive deity by the heavenly scent of myrrh emitted by his gilded skin. The legend of the phoenix originated or at any rate was elaborated in Egypt: the unique gold and crimson bird that lived for 500 years and nested in cinnamon, cassia, spikenard and myrrh, dieting on drops of frankincense. When the old bird died its offspring was said to enclose the corpse in an egg of pure myrrh and bring it for burial at the temple at Heliopolis, the former City of the Sun now prosaically incorporated into the suburbs of Greater Cairo.

Anyone who thrills to these old tales will love Papillon’s ANUBIS by perfumer Elizabeth Moores, a poem in perfume to the arcane beliefs of the ancient world. It is also very apt for Christmas by the way: as one of its central ingredients is – you’re sure to have guessed it! – myrrh, the gift brought by the Magi to presage Christ’s suffering and entombment. “Myrrh is mine / Its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom…” . And don’t forget that genial old Santa started life as St Nicholas of Myra, the city in modern Turkey where his sarcophagus was said to weep miraculous tears of sweet-scented myrrh resin: which is why the saint is now the official patron of perfumers and all things fragranced.

Anubis from Papillon Artisan Perfumes

Anubis from Papillon Artisan Perfumes

ANUBIS is not Liz Moore’s only scent – there are two other beauties – but it is perhaps the most exotic. Anubis was the god of embalming & mummification, the guardian of cemeteries, the conductor of souls to the afterlife. At the core of his perfume is absolute of pink Nile lotus, not flowery and pretty but dark, vegetal and virile like the vital sediment of the inundation which fertilised the green East Bank of the Nile. Then around this Liz wraps a series of powerful pungent oils, as intricately as the linen bandages swathing a dead monarch. One can almost hear the funerary priests in their black jackals’ head masks intoning the ritual names of benzoin, castoreum, opoponax, saffron, labdanum, tolu and sandalwood. There’s jasmine too, like the dried flower wreaths sometimes found by archaeologists in the tombs. ANUBIS is a precious and unique thrill: don’t start worrying that it might be a touch morbid – the Egyptians believed that all the joy they found in life would be redoubled after death. So with this scent: ANUBIS is an explosion of life-affirming energetic delights!

You can meet the wonderful Elizabeth Moores at our Seymour Place shop on Weds 10th December, alongside two other incredibly talented British perfumers.

 

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From Blackpool to Havana.

Sarah McCartney

Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays

I am dotty about What I Did On My Holidays, Sarah McCartney‘s preservation of past summers like so many flies in sweet-smelling amber. Highly original, devastatingly pretty: here’s an elegant scent that’s cunning and clever, amusing, witty and a treat to wear. A jeu d’esprit, a tonic, a irresistible pick-me-up even on the weariest, wettest and wickedest of August days. WIDOMH is a hand-tinted picture postcard album of seaside nostalgia; what Charlie Drake used to call “a world of toffee and tears”. Take a pierrot line of melting Neapolitan ices, creamy whorls of dusty pink, pistachio, gold and vanilla. Then fold in green cucumbery notes of sea breeze, rock pools and crab teas; pink sticky watch-your-fillings peppermint rock; coconut suntan oil from the pre-SPF era; and the yellow haze of sunshine filtered through Bank Holiday traffic fumes and serenaded by the melancholy Sunday afternoon chimes of the Mr Softee van. Does this have you reaching for your purse? I’ll take two, please!

What I Did On My Holidays

What I Did On My Holidays

Holiday memories are the sharpest, because one is living out of the ordinary for a week or two; and because the camera that we all carry with us is so tuned up by anticipation to snap a sharp succession of new experiences. I used to hate those intrusive essays demanded on the return to school: “What I Did on My Holidays” seemed absolutely no one’s business but my own. Yet, here are 4160 Tuesdays and I sharing these long-ago experiences, caught in this extraordinary scent which smells elusive, heart-tugging and hilarious in turn. It has a whiff of that most comical and grotesque of trips, Dora Bryan and Robert Stephens lugging a sullen Rita Tushingham (“be nice to him, love, he’s brought you chocolates”) along Blackpool Pier in A Taste of Honey. And it has the melancholy dreamy beauty of a faded water colour in an old bedroom looking out to sea, a room I’ve not seen for more than half a century; where if I stood on top of the water tank I could just about make out the grey waves and the sand dunes away across the marshes.”

I wrote the above two summers ago and my love affair with 4160 Tuesdays and the ineffable creator has proved far from a brief holiday romance. I am fathoms deep in love. Sarah McCartney has not only brilliant eccentric talent, but you sense that she has the most enormous fun in creating her perfumes: she appears to get a hell of a kick out of her own products and this I find quite irresistible in an over-serious world. Sarah’s scents are full of joy and wit; laughter, memory, imagination and fantasy – all those things that we perfume-pickers constantly reference as fundamental foundations of a great fragrance. She composes like a bold Fauvist painter – using brilliant gemmy colours; great bold strokes camouflaging insightful subtlety. Sarah is eclectic, weaving all kinds of symbols, totems, allusions and glittering ephemera into a magical web: she is the Shena Mackay of fragrance, a mordant mistress of illusion. 4160 is a wardrobe of highly sophisticated scents which one can also play with – in the same way that Carl Faberge’s jewels are also the most fantastic toys ever made.

Two more crackers have just arrived at Les Senteurs – The Dark Heart of Havana and Doe in the Snow. Now the first is a riff on Carmen Miranda, Hemingway, Zarah Leander in “Cuba Cubana” – everything you ever heard about desire and indulgence and stifled laughter in the starry tropics. It takes me back to the sodden New Year of 1968 and flying off to Bermuda to visit my aunt, house-sitting in a pearly villa surrounded by groves of grapefruit which we kids noshed straight from the tree. We sipped the unheard-of delicacy of rum and cokes on the pink shell beaches, my mother bought a fabulous pair of tortoiseshell Raybans and it was fairyland after shopping for school uniforms in gritty downtown Leicester. But the best bit of all was the arrival, stepping off the BOAC flight into warm balmy midnight air and the Hamilton terminal full of scarlet hibiscus, mauve oleander and a battery of new and unknown smells. We went crazy, like dogs pursuing aniseed or sex. “Havana” brings it all back. My heart wells up at all the green and marmaladey peachy citrus, the soft brown sugar, the tobacco (Aunty’s 60-a-day Lucky Strikes – or Craven A if available), the first properly made coffee we’d ever tasted. And encircling everything like a lei, the waxy spicy floral scents of Prospero’s island.

Doe In The Snow was originally created for the intellectual perfume connoisseur’s Dream Girl, She-Who-Needs-No-Introduction: Miss Odette Toilette. Like all masterpieces of bespoke fragrance Doe catches its subject to perfection, an insightful and moving portrait in scent. So maybe it’s partly because I love Odette so well that this bottled avatar enthralls me: Sarah McCartney writes that she “stirred woods, fruits and flowers with an icicle” – like the wand of the Snow Queen. Doe is all about contrasts and illusions, a Dance of the Seven Veils which discreetly retains a final diaphanous drapery and a pellucid enigma. Classic Paris notes of oak moss and jasmine contrast with frosty yuzu, peach aldehyde and creamy-golden tonka. To me, Doe In The Snow has something of the great scent-stars of the past about it – murmurs of Mitsouko, Ma Griffe and Femme: a generous, all-embracing hommage to the chypres, that smallest, most select and genuinely glamorous of fragrance families. And how about a medal for the name, too!

I’ll finish as I began by revisiting an earlier appreciation of 4160 Tuesdays, this time a salute to The Lion Cupboard. Sarah named this wonderful scent after her father’s personal treasure cupboard – it’s redolent of tooth powder, cashmeres and silk scarves laid up in herbs against the moth, dark fragrant woods, leather-bound diaries, half-forgotten colognes and the assurance of the past. Mint, juniper oil, aniseed, patchouli and lavender on the shelves are as transient but powerful as memories, regrets and reminiscences. The ideal perfume for winter hibernation, comfort and reflection: what the best-dressed polar bear is wearing this Christmas!

You can smell all of the fragrances from 4160 Tuesdays, as well as have the chance to chat with Sarah McCartney, on Wednesday 10th December at our Festive Soiree!

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Handbags

queen and her launer

And before we even start, I’m telling you now I am not going to mention Dame Edith Evans.

There was a most fascinating and wonderful inspirational speaker on the radio the other day from the University of Kent. Professor Julia Twigg (with Christina Buse) has made a study of the role and significance of handbags in the lives of elderly women with dementia; examining how life may contract to the expressions of personality and memory centring on a bag as the mind slowly loses its own ability to carry information and characteristics. Meanwhile, a cherished friend of the bosom from the world of scent writes of how she sees her vast collection of bags as extensions of herself, never just as objects or accessories. A very good reason (as with a perfume wardrobe) why she needs so many.

I have always admired the idea of a bag because I like to have a great many companionable things to hand at all times: practical stuff like glasses, keys, Polos, pens and painkillers. And also the more talismanic items such as family photos (“ancestor worship”), favourite postcards & books, scent, amulets against the Evil Eye, paper ikons, medallions and so on. So I cart all this about in a series of nylon and plastic carriers from the supermarket; or latterly in a rather smart orange canvas bag provided at a perfume conference. As with shoes I’ve never had much luck in finding a smart bag not too egregious for elderly male use; I don’t want one of those leather patchwork things in shades of maroon, magenta and dung. In any case, I think the assemblage and presentation of a decent handbag is above all a female and feminine art.

Women’s bags are much more imaginatively designed, coloured and all the rest of it. They have the added advantage of smelling delicious: and not just when a bottle of Shalimar, Giorgio or Fidgi has disastrously leaked therein. Or so I have always found during rare forays into bags when left in charge briefly by intimate friends and relations, or asked to delve in to find a pair of spectacles. When very small I was devoured by curiosity as to what was inside these bags, an itch which landed me in very hot water as “little boys NEVER EVER look in ladies’ bags!” Many years later I read some piece of popular psychology which claimed that boys who peer into handbags most generally grow up into lifelong bachelors. An extraordinary thing to say!

But my grandmother always encouraged my natural inquisitiveness and it was in her bag that I learned to appreciate that delicious texture and scent of worn soft leather, silk, suede, pressed face powder, wispy lawn hankies, sweet waxy lipstick, 10 Players, burned matches and money. Paper money (rather greasy) and old coppers used to have a very definite smell, not so much now that cash changes hands quicker. Then there were all these little folders and inner pockets and secret compartments, zipped and popped and studded and buttoned; and filled with looking glasses, bills and well-worn letters and lists – ” tonic water, lettuce, library, frozen peas”. Really I suppose my grandmother was of the first generation of women to need a bag. Before the turn of the 20th century the folds of ladies’ ample skirts were full of pockets; keys were kept on a chatelaine; no decent female admitted to smoking or making up. There was no need for a bag. Hankies and cachous were tucked into bangles, up sleeves or into the decolletage or muff. The most a girl needed was a tiny mesh purse for pin money.

Miss Nathalie Lecroc has made a good living illustrating the contents of bags; as varied as their owners, her pictures are riveting to pore over. Various perfumers have produced candles which imitate the scent of a good handbag but I think no one has made a wearable perfume to wear which performs the trick. Having said this, I have always found during our lengthy relationship that Caron’s seductive Parfum Sacre is divinely “sac a main” in style. According to Caron lore it is a blend of their notorious Poivre and the swooning Fete des Roses. What I smell is the most expensive suede evening bag with faintly damp rose-scented face powder spilled on a thick silk lining with accents of cinnamon, coriander, amber and musk oozing in from crimson-nailed hands soaked in a lifetime of scented oils. Irresistible.