“Touchez-pas mes tomates!” – Josephine Baker

 

I have never yet assisted at an anthropophagous feast. Indeed, despite the occasional voice from the BBC radio archive, many academics now question whether cannibal banquets ever occurred at all. They could be a figment of a warped cultural imagination. (See also: violent Vikings, the various cakes of King Alfred and Marie Antoinette, or even the very existence of the poor old Dolly Sisters). The tomato is such a well-known homely fruit and food-chain-rivet today. It’s hard to imagine it in Pre-Conquest Mexico, served up with marigolds and tuberose on a garnished epergne of human sacrificial flesh.

‘Tomatl’ the old Mexica called the luscious-acid berry. Spookily it’s a member of the nightshade family. We in Britain first wrote the word as ‘tamatah’ or ‘tomata’ – the way many of us still pronounce it.

How the tomatl finished up here is uncertain. It grew wild all over the South American continent and came to London via Italy and Spain, courtesy of Columbus – maybe! – and the Conquistadors. In those days carrots were purple, beetroots were yellow and tomatoes were gold. And the English didn’t take to the novelties at all. The taste was too sharp and sour for a nation already sky-high on sugar. The colour was at first thought amusing for table decoration; but tomatoes, it seems, mostly ended up in animal feed. What people objected to most, was the horrible smell.

Which is odd. Because today the fragrance of ripe warm tomatoes is as much of a delicacy as the fruit itself. I used to know a greenhouse in a walled secret garden. At this time of year, the hothouse would surrounded with huge fleshy bitter-scented scarlet dahlias and a tangle of tarragon, run wild. Push open the swollen glass door and you were embraced by the narcotic perfume of vine peaches, and of ripening tomatoes in their feathery foliage.

I’m growing tomatoes right now, in tubs, and feeding them with Tomorite. Very healthy this year, they are: bug-free and appreciative of last week’s 48 hour deluge. The leaves smell good when pinched: spicy and green and slightly dusty, musty, feral. I guess the scent is not that far removed from that of geraniums. Spiky, aromatic, uplifting. Our wonderful Mona di Orio always remembered from infancy the smell of her grandmother’s geraniums: one of her own key perfume references. Baking summer days – and then watering the flower pots in the cool of the evening: the sharp tang of wet earth and leaves.

We have had one or two tomato scents in the shop over the years; and the occasional tomato candle. They have all been ingenious and rather lovely; though not especially successful sellers. Maybe because – although lusciously redolent – the tomato is too much associated in people’s minds with eating. But then, you exclaim, what nonsense is this? Folk go mad for gourmand perfumes suggestive of cream, chocolate, peaches, apricots, praline, liqueurs. Yes, certainly. But then these are luxurious, voluptuous, often rather unhealthy foods: ergo, erotic. The tomato represents ‘health for all’ and for some perverse reason that is not generally seen as sexy. Or, not as yet. Consider, too, canned tomato soup: it comes very high on comfort lists for the poorly and the exhausted. That too doesn’t sit well with an exuberant sensuality.

When tomatoes were eventually bred as red in hue they still failed to find favour. Great ladies of the Victorian and Edwardian era – most famously Duchess Violet of Rutland – thought them common. The Duchess banned them from Belvoir Castle. I remember it being said that Prime Minister John Major loathed tomatoes, and they were in his day never proffered with the Full English at No.10. My father was wary of them and preferred them skinned. He believed that every tomato skin ingested would one day have to be accounted for: evidently another inherited Victorian food fad.

My grandmother taught me the most amusing way to peel tommies: inexhaustible fun at age five or six. You stuck a skewer into the core, and held the fruit in the gas flame of the stove, rotating it slowly. Sooner or later there came a satisfying ‘POP!’ – and a spitting burst of juice – and a wonderful scent of scorching warm tomato flesh. The skin slid off as easily as on a baking Bank Holiday beach weekend at Bognor!

I saw Jamie Oliver cooking dried beans the other night. He advised popping in a tomato because its acid softens the beans, and stops them from splitting. It occurred to me that you could drop in whole tomatoes and thus loosen their skins in the boil-up. Myself, I don’t bother about peeling. The way I like my tomatoes best is raw – warm from the sun, sliced and tossed in olive oil and black pepper. Let the mix sit – covered – in the sun a while longer. Lots of fresh basil leaves satisfy an urgent need for violent primary colour-clashing and added fragrance. To gild the lily, chuck in peeled and glistening avocado halves. The ultimate quantum of solace.

More intimate pages from my diary…

 

SUNDAY

Awake too soon. Decide to tidy my handkerchief drawer. Empty it out on the bed. Here’s a rainbow of coloured cottons: every sort of hanky from sturdy spotted indigo bandanas to dainty lexicons of the Language of Flowers. Some have been gifts, others found in the street. Iron, fold and stack. Re-line drawer and spray everything with Papillon’s delectable Dryad. Spend rest of morning opening and shutting drawer for the sheer pleasure of smelling that heavenly Dryad flying out. Take late afternoon train back to London. No seats. Balance myself in the aisles. Write my blog standing, like Florence Nightingale’s papa. Passengers stampede like cattle over one another’s baggage. A bad couple of hours, and to crown all I find I have forgotten my heartburn tablets. Though not my scented hanky.

 

MONDAY

Take Tube down to Richmond for a day in the office. It’s right next door to Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth House. Mrs W. once wrote that poor Katherine Mansfield smelled like a civet cat.

Read a fascinating Times obituary of Frank Sinatra’s last wife. I’ve always found Frankie a most unattractive character, but Marlene adored him; and so did this wonderful woman Barbara Blakeley who stood for no nonsense. “He signed his love letters to her as ‘Charlie Neat’, a reference to his tendency to take several showers a day and to smell of lavender water”.¤

The fondness for lavender is interesting. Too many folk still associate it with ennervated effete old ladies whereas it can be a very virile, invigorating scent. Today I’m working at Creed UK HQ: Sinatra is often said to have had a yen for Creed products. People fixate on knowing which perfume a celebrity wears: but you never know for sure, not really. Stars get sent so many gifts. And, like the rest of us – but on a vaster scale –  they buy stuff but never use it. Or they pass it on, unopened, to the maid and the valet. Nonetheless it’s still a thrill to think that one can smell – more or less – like one’s idol. The purchase of a little sympathetic magic.

 

TUESDAY

Quite a day. Les Senteurs at 71 Elizabeth St is now being wonderfully done up – redecorated and refurbished – so every last stick has to be moved out.

We packed all that could be packed into the van and that’s a fact – then we haul it down into the basement of Les Senteurs at 2 Seymour Place. Here we now congregate like a colony of bower birds. All sorts of flotsam and jetsam from the past drift ashore. Perfume stimulates memory as we all know, so the whole experience is exceedingly overwhelming. For the next couple of months all the staff will be at your service at the one shop in elegant Seymour Place. Plenty of good restaurants nearby; so why not come down and spend the day in Marylebone?

 

WEDNESDAY

Two new scents from Mona di Orio arrive & are unpacked. Pascale – always the perfect House Model for every perfume –  smells swooningly lovely in Dojima. This is a delicate fantasy of rice powder, jasmine, nutmeg and creamy musk. We all go out for supper at ‘Zayna’ in New Quebec Street to console ourselves for Pascale leaving us on August 15th. For the past two and half years she has been not only a dear and irreplaceable Friend, but also a perfect Nose, a witty and perceptive cultural Philosopher, an adroit PR Operative and a conscientious Manager. The loss is irreparable.

Take our places at ‘Zayna’, eat wonderful food – including the best prawns in the world – and feel a bit weepy.

 

THURSDAY

How differently we all interpret the same fragrance – thank Heaven for that! Else, as my father used to say, some of us would be killed in the rush. Enjoy animated chat with a most charming and erudite gentleman who comes to buy a bottle of BOIS D’OMBRIE. I experience this dark woody resinous fragrance as a  sleepy siesta in a deep green velvet armchair. My visitor thinks of it as a wild war-time forest ‘where ignorant armies clash by night’. Fascinating. Just goes to show you need imagination as well as a nose to get the most from perfume.

 

FRIDAY

Awake up to find my phone chocka with texts & emails. Have I seen the Daily Mail? No. Apparently I’m ‘in’. Hobble out for a copy, and – o dear! – it’s true. Here is a whole page, lavishly illustrated  – and with a by-line, yet. It’s an article I wrote back in the spring about Diana’s Perfumes. Here at Les Senteurs we stock Houbigant’s legendary QUELQUES FLEURS, the scent the Princess is said to have worn on her wedding day. It has been adored by generations of women since 1912. Said to be perfumery’s first true multi-floral bouquet, Quelques Fleurs (brilliantly understated name) is as fresh and dewy as it was 105 years ago. I like the apple blossom note myself – and the deep musky jasmine shadows.

 

SATURDAY

Awake in my own bed having caught the late train home last night.
Gather a large bowl of blackberries in record time. The gleaming warm fruits
are already tumbling off the briars or being pecked by birds. They are shining and brilliant in the morning sun, almost the colour of iridescent bluebottles – or beryls. This year’s crop has been ripe since July. Abnormally early. The Devil spits on the berries on Michaelmas Day¤¤ – so it’s a long harvest this year.  Poach them briefly in a little sugar and their own juices: a wonderful sweet nutty smell. I think of MOMENT PERPETUEL and how artfully Msr Arnaud blends blackberry with lavender: symphony in violet, purple and mauve.

Eat the blackberries.

 

¤ The Times July 27th 2017

¤¤ St Michael, Leader of the Celestial Armies. Feast of St Michael and All Angels: 29th September.

“Dear Diary”: my week in perfume

Les Indémodables founder Valerie Pulverail and her partner Remi Pulverail, founder of L’Atelier Francais des Matières with Claire, Daniela and James!

SUNDAY:

Pack up for the return to London. Very hot. Reluctant to leave my tower lilies, now in full bloom in a pair of pots framing the back door. This is their second year, and they’ve put on a massive growth spurt. The taller lily is well over six feet, with a stem as sturdy as a young sapling – “no need to stake”. At the summit – rather as in a belfry – hang twelve trumpet blooms. Each is the size of a eccentrically-shaped soup bowl, and the colour of a very rich cream custard with scent to match. Ginger, lemon, tonka, vanilla, musk and jasmine accords attract swarms of insects – and me. Why does no perfumer produce a fragrance to replicate this heavenly smell? I’m always asking this question. Never get a satisfactory answer.

 

 

MONDAY:

My office day. Pop down to Richmond. Queen Elizabeth 1’s favourite palace once stood on the river bank. All that remains now is The Wardrobe. Officious person tells me, “..that doesn’t mean a cupboard in which to hang your clothes, you know.” Elizabeth Tudor died here – not in the Wardrobe. I always think it was a foolish place to bring a sick cross old lady in wet windy March weather; but I suppose the Queen insisted. The Thames at Richmond intensifies winter cold and damp; but in July all is idyllic. Dancing in the streets and flowers everywhere. Office is filled with the scent of a bowl of ripe mangoes. Am shown a new eau de parfum from Mizensir with the provocative name of Tres Chère – masses of orange blossom and vanilla; comforting, seductive and a great booster of spirits. Mizensir perfumes are all great fun – an essential quality in scent. Clever Mr Morillas!

 

TUESDAY:

A very warm night. Troubled dreams of Myrna Loy; and of pugs. A dear former colleague writes that she is visiting the H.Q. of Aspects Beauty, “custodians of luxury cosmetic and fragrance brands”. Aspects live in a gorgeous old house – Balneath Manor – in East Sussex which once belonged to Queen Anne of Cleves. The property was part of her divorce settlement from Henry VIII. A pleasing irony, because one of Old Harry’s grouses was that Anne smelled funny. Now her lovely home is filled with wonderful scents. A pub quiz mentality kicks in here, and I think about other divorced Queens of England – Catherine of Aragon, Sophie Dorothea (locked up by that old brute George 1st); and, of course, the scatty Caroline of Brunswick, barred at the Abbey doors from George IV’s coronation. She too “smelled offensively” – too lazy to wash, her own parents said. The English Ambassador put in a word, but all in vain.

 

WEDNESDAY:

So hot that I draw across the curtains upon arising to keep out the cruel glare. Am pleased to recall the ancient Egyptians personifying the angry sun as the “Lady of the Chamber of Flames”. Interesting weather for smelling scent. All the oils come shimmeringly, blazingly, to life and open up like so many peacock tails on hot damp skin. A pyrotechnic perfume show. Go marketing for dry goods and beverages to adorn tomorrow’s Les Senteurs Event. Lemons, limes, mandarins and raspberries make a wonderful splash of colour – a Frida Kahlo still life. Put on a splash of our new Paloma Y Raices ‘en hommage’. The Edgware Road seems endless in this heat – “a long long trail a-winding into the land of my dreams…” But there’s no white moon beaming at the end of it. Return to shop with my loot. Pascale says I’m making funny noises. It is possible.

 

THURSDAY:

Meet the wonderful Valerie and Remi Pulverail who fly in from Annecy for our Event. The kind, gracious, generous and richly informative Pulverails have come to talk about Valerie’s new brand Les Indémodables. Five scents inspired by the classic perfume families – and now exclusive in the UK at Les Senteurs. Just For Us!! We are blessed indeed. Become very excited. Each fragrance has a silky smoothness, profound depth and a jewel-like brilliance. The names add to the sense of rich colour and luxury: Fougére Emeraude, Chypre Azural, Iris Perle…A fragranced wardrobe of dreams. Shop fills up wonderfully for Event: Remi and Valerie speak thrillingly and persuasively. A great success. Home very late, by taxi.

 

FRIDAY:

Rendezvous with Valerie and Remi at 11am at Les Senteurs, Belgravia. The Pulverails both look fresh as daisies, crisp and immaculate, full of energy and knowledge. Valerie is the epitome of French chic in a cunning white lace jacket. Fascinating two hours of training. Our shop manager says, “I have never enjoyed a training more, nor learned so much”. Finally understand exactly why Calabrian bergamot is the BEST bergamot: often stated, never before explained. Here’s the reason. Thanks to the proximity of Mount Etna across the straits, Calabria has its own micro-climate. Night temperatures consistently warm, balmy winters. The volcanically-manured soil feeds and nourishes the temperamental bergamot trees and their fruit.  Remi makes reference to the fact that few flowers bloom for longer than three weeks. (Jasmine is one exception). We agree ruefully that, as we grow older, these weeks seem to shrink. Dissect Cuir de Chine and discover the radiance of natural Chinese Osmanthus Absolute. A miracle! Never smelled anything like this. Les Indémodables demonstrate that, even at my age, revelations in perfume can occur. Ask Remi about fragrances celebrating lilies. He is kind and sympathetic but we come to no definitive conclusion.

After work, take late train home to Leicester. As I step onto my native heath, the Heavens open – am soaked as I dash across London Road. Had almost forgotten this refreshing sensation.


SATURDAY:

Drink chilled redbush tea all day – a new craze much recommended by my neighbour. Flowery, delicate and refreshing. Find a Chinese pot pourri dish – still filled and fragrant – at Oxfam. Buy a yellow orchid and an Italian plate. Tower lilies still holding their own. Still pumping out perfume. They have one week left.

 

 

Roman Holiday

In this continuing oppressively muggy weather our intellectual energies are sapped. Consequently I’ve returned to a degenerate old habit. Every night I’ll watch the same DVD: time after time. For the last few weeks I have been hypnotised by ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone’ (1961). It’s so relaxing to pick a familiar film to pieces, knowing that no shocks or surprises await you; but that new innuendoes are still there to be understood. Tiny overlooked details are yet to be found in the corners of the frame. Very similar it is to exploring the outer limits of your favourite perfume. And so, only two nights ago, kneeling before the set with my sharpest specs on, I spotted the flacon of Shalimar to the side of Mrs Stone’s dressing table: the same prop and bottle previously noted in Diana Dors’s beauty shop in ‘Yield To The Night’. Guerlain, your magic spell is everywhere!

‘Mrs Stone’ – adapted from the Tennessee Williams novella – is as disturbing as anything you might expect by that upsetting writer. The film is a study of – I suppose –  sexual desire, loneliness and moral decay. Abruptly widowed in the skies over Rome, the “proud…arrogant” – and to use a modern euphemism, “troubled”  – stage legend Karen Stone comes to live in a palazzo apartment on the Spanish Steps. Here the angel of death and his troupe of unlikely heralds in the costumes of low cafe society come to stalk, court and seduce her.

What twists the knife, is the unnerving casting of Vivien Leigh in the title role. The whilom Lady Olivier is compelled to play out her own tragic story in the unattractive persona of Karen. There is not a sympathetic character in the movie: not even among the servants where a more sentimental piece might have discovered a little warmth. Mrs Stone’s maid has a smirking knowingness to her; her chauffeur (Warren Mitchell, would you believe, in a bit part¤) is perfunctory and gruff. Alone among assorted birds of prey – though she is ironically the only one so stigmatised by the script – Karen Stone begins to lose her bearings, to drift.

She “was becomingly alarmingly conscious of a sense of drifting if not of drowning in a universe of turbulently rushing fluids and vapours.” ¤¤

As the narrator intones this, we pace with Mrs Stone in her sealed airless pastel bedroom with its huge empty sateen bed and closets of Balmain couture on padded hangers. These were the days when bags, shoes and gloves were dyed to match the dress. Karen sits at her dressing table loaded with its extensive armoury against age. The “fluids and vapours” materialise – not rushing, but torpid – as luxurious lotions, creams and perfumes. Unguents for the embalming. There stand Shalimar and Miss Dior, for sure; those with keen eyes will probably identify other famous names. Here, too, as throughout the film are endless arrangements of flowers. “Floral tributes” might be more appropriate: there is something funereal about the stagey profusion of waxy magnolias, freesias, lilies and indecent anthuriums. Their scent may be invisible but the claustrophobic painted sets seem saturated by it. When Karen buys a posy of muguet in the street, she fidgets and sniffs with it while lying to old stage colleagues that she has an incurable illness. And we then remember “Flores para los muertos!” – the ominous flower seller in the earlier Leigh vehicle A Streetcar Named Desire. We gradually notice too that Mrs Stone’s soi-disant best friend (Coral Browne) is clad exclusively in shades of black, white and grey whenever they – uncomfortably – meet. Colours of premature mourning.

This sense of doom is intensified by the modern audience awareness of Vivien Leigh’s own precarious health, neuroses and early death. One of her many preoccupations was with hygiene and her fear that others might find her evil-smelling. She worried about her breath; and kept a series of silk embroidered squares which she threw over discarded intimate clothing. Mind you, there may be something exaggerated about this last report. I remember reading it out to my mother some 40 years ago, and she said “oh, we ALL had those cloths then. Maybe not silk nor embroidered – but everyone had them…”

Vivien Leigh’s signature perfume was apparently Patou’s Joy: that wonderfully intense and exaggerated heady animalic jasmine that either delights or repels. It’s an old favourite of mine although – or is it because? – within the rainy damp loveliness you can detect the faint whiff of imminent decay.

And that’s how poor Vivien looks on film: a wrecked beauty at age 47; garishly made-up, atrociously coiffured. Kittenish still, sometimes, but now a spiteful hard-eyed kitten who has been teased too much by life. Her tormentor-in-chief is the Contessa who is obsessed with – amongst other things – food. With “fine dining”, as we might say now. In the original story, I remember the Contessa as being consequently obsese. Here in a stroke of casting genius she’s played by the angular and voracious Lotte Lenya – forever famished for caviar, lobster and money. Here we go again, back to the predatory birds and the smells of meat, flesh and blood – life and death in Rome, ancient and modern.

 

 

This September – 50 years after her death at the age of 53 – Sotheby’s are holding an auction of Vivien Leigh’s personal possessions. And right now in this “red raw moment”¤¤¤ we have at Les Senteurs a sensational new perfume. Andy Tauer’s L’EAU conjures up an aura of a happier Roman holiday with all the languorous delights of la dolce vita. L’EAU is a glorious paradox. This rara avis is a sensual citrus, an erotic hesperidic. It smells of sunshine on ancient balconies, terraces and verandas. Ancient stones soaked in a light and warmth that melt your bones in joyous languor as you open a second bottle of Limoncello. L’EAU wraps itself around the wearer in a cloud of lemon blossom, orange, bergamot and iris. The wonderfully persistent base lingers on for hours thanks to what appears to me to be beautiful infusions of amber, musk, sandalwood and tonka. It really is blissful: so sexy, stylish – and, unparalleled for a citric scent, sumptuous. Why not pop round?

¤ the whole cast is extraordinary: amongst others we meet –  Ernest Thesiger, Jean Marsh, Maria Britneva, Edward de Souza, Jill St John, Warren Beatty, Mavis Villiers, Elspeth March, Sam Jaffe and – toast of the early silents – Bessie Love.

¤¤ shooting script by Gavin Lambert

¤¤¤ Molly Keane, passim.

“All By Yourself In The Moonlight” – Rosa Greta at Les Senteurs

 

My grandfather was a great Garbo fan. Whenever the Divine One’s latest movie opened in Leicester he’d be off into town on his motor bike. It was after one of these outings, on a dusky summer’s evening, that he claimed he’d had a supernatural encounter; that he’d driven right through a spectral monkish shade gliding across the road. I am always intrigued to hear to which great stars my venerable ancestors were addicted. Their preferences provide thoughtful and unexpected insight into their characters. One’s adoration of a certain actor is as revealing as one’s choice of perfume. I remember my grandfather as bluff and sporty, always gardening or racing, a glass well to hand. But he painted, too; loved Swinburne’s poetry and the novels of Balzac. He had served right through the Great War and was wounded twice. He was acquainted with the shadow side of life. His first meeting with his future bride was unorthodox. He, on his motor bike in a narrow leafy lane, ran into her mother’s funeral cortege. Miss Elliott raised her crepe veil – gazed into the eyes of Mr Craven – and that was that. A scene that might well have come from an early Garbo silent.

She was a funny one, that gloomy Swede, with her family of trolls under the sofa. Greta Garbo always had far more of a following in Europe, in the Old World from which she sprang. Americans found her just too nutty, too glacially and disturbingly beautiful; too much of the outsider. As David Shipman put it¤, she signally failed to muck in. It was to Europe that Garbo regularly returned for her holidays – to England and Sweden; and to the Mediterranean which provided the heat, sea and sunshine that she loved so much. She was once one of a cruising party on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht. Fellow guests included the Winston Churchills, Callas and the Duke & Duchess of Windsor. One of the company later complained of the extreme ennui of the glittering party. Garbo had easily the most boring conversation of any of them, her remarks being mostly about the price of dry groceries in New York.

(But is this in itself not strangely endearing? Rather like Marlene’s homely recipes for sardine sandwiches and boiled potatoes).

The new and exquisite ROSA GRETA by Eau d’Italie now at Les Senteurs is inspired by another, earlier, holiday: this time at the Villa Cimbrone at Ravello. The Villa is noted for its rose terraces and still very much on the tourist route today. Garbo arrived for a stay in 1938, on the arm of her current lover, the conductor Leopold Stokowski¤¤. He was over a quarter century her senior with a great mane of white hair. The fan magazines were baffled. Their editors would have been even more foxed had they been privileged to see Garbo unpack her luggage upon arrival at the Villa. From her one small and shabby suitcase she took a selection of pots of jam. The jam went down to breakfast with her every morning. Afterwards it was returned to the bedroom and locked in the case. I would like to know whether a.) G.G. had made the jam herself and b.) whether Leopold was allowed to try it.

Stokowski was then beginning to make a big splash in Hollywood. He worked with the new teen sensation Deanna Durbin; and was later to be spliced in with Mickey Mouse in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’. Despite his name, Stokowski was English: in fact he was born a short walk from Les Senteur’s Seymour Place store, in Upper Marylebone Street. He was schooled in Marylebone High Street. So it feels as though ROSA GRETA has a strange and unexpected link to Seymour Place. It seems to belong with us, in a very esoteric way.

G.G. had an affinity with roses. Roses have thorns. Unlike her compatriot Ingrid Bergman, there is no rose specifically named for Garbo but the flower is part of her myth. In the 1929 silent ‘A Woman of Affairs’ she emerges distraught and dying from a hospital room to embrace a vast bouquet of white roses as she would a lover. The title card reads:

“I don’t want much – only you!”

In the next decade her bizarre on-off affair with Cecil Beaton began at a Hollywood party. Garbo drew a yellow rose from a vase, kissed it and presented it to Beaton who dried, pressed and framed the petals. The shrivelled – richly symbolic! – rose hung by his bed for the rest of his life and was auctioned off after his death in the 1980’s. It was knocked down for only £750 which – whatever anyone says – wasn’t that much, even then. G.G. is not to everyone’s taste. That’s part of the appeal.

ROSA GRETA is packaged in the bright blue and pink that featured largely in Garbo’s private wardrobe. She was especially fond of a certain shade of blue to set off those huge blue eyes, never seen in colour in any of her 27 films – and rarely in photos. The Garbo image is essentially a creation of black and white. It takes a bit of practice to imagine her in clear cheerful shades flattering that honey-tanned skin and the silky hair described by Beaton as ‘biscuit’. And always smelling clean, sweet and delicious in a Nordic natural rural way. If she bothered to wear scent at all, it was usually some vaguely masculine cologne.

ROSA GRETA is sexually ambiguous and intended to be enjoyed by everyone. I love it. It’s a scent into which one can sink: as into a pool or a bath or a bed of roses. This refreshing graceful creation by Fabrice Pellegrin¤¤¤ is a summer confection of white tea, damask rose, lychee (very discreet; not at all gloopy) and ambery woody accords. It has a dewy dampness about it, and a soft mossiness. Rose perfumes are always chancy because they carry such a weight of association and expectation, inherent in the choice of theme. Everyone thinks they know how a rose smells, and how it SHOULD smell when translated into a fragrance. It’s the one flower everybody can identify and name. Every perfumer wants to have a go at creating the definitive rose. It’s the odour of universal myth and symbolism, the fragrance of prayer, myth, fairy tale and passion: “the raptures and roses of vice”. Very apt therefore for associations with Garbo. Like the famous closing shot of “Queen Christina” – “think of nothing at all: make your face a blank” – we each of us read whatever we desire into a rose perfume. You’re likely to find your Heart’s Desire in GRETA.

¤ In “The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years” – that seminal work of 1970.

¤¤ he was married to – amongst others –  Gloria Vanderbilt of designer jeans and perfume fame; and the Johnson & Johnson heiress Evangeline Love Brewster Johnson. Interesting tangential fragrance connections!

¤¤¤ Pellegrin is already well known to us at Les Senteurs as the creator of By Kilian’s Smoke For the Soul.

Dryad

 

I love trees yet I am wary of woods. Trees have so much natural magic in and about them. Consequently, when they grow en masse, they can be intimidating. Trees are homes to elves, witches, trolls, goblins, dryads, nymphs and all manner of faery grotesques. When you plant many trees together you are playing with fire, tempting outbursts of the supernatural and the paranormal. I fancy that maybe Lewis Carroll thought the same. Think of that terrifying Jabberwocky – turn the page quickly when reading in bed! –  the Cheshire Cat up in the branches, and that deafening aggressive Pigeon. There are a lots of dark woods and their disconcerting denizens in the Alice books.

Then come Babes in the Wood, The Tinder Box, Hansel and Gretel, The Wild Wood, Mr Tod. Our mother filled her children’s heads with stories of The White Monkey who sat high in the tree tops, gazing down with glitter-eyed malevolence and malice. Not to mention the Wooky Witch who lived in a blackthorn alley behind the gas works and who flew after us – and the pram – as we raced, panic-stricken, up the bosky tunnel of leafy twigs. And there was also the Giant Budd who ate ice cream from the convolvulus flowers twined around his poplar trees.

Now a dryad is the spirit of a tree; the life of a tree. She is the nymph who lives and presides within the bark. Sometimes an unlucky woodcutter will see blood when he fells timber and knows with terror that he has killed the dryad: evidently with consequent fatal consequences to himself. Old dictionaries of mythology describe dryads as usually benevolent but apt to sometimes boo out and terrify unwary lone travellers. This happens especially at noon and midnight –  the hours when the world is brightest or dimmest; when humankind is blinded by light or night. That’s when the dryad strikes.

Many old stories are told of mortal maidens transformed into flowers, shrubs or trees to protect them from lecherous admirers. Daphne, for instance. To save her from the advances of Apollo, she was turned into the sweet-smelling flowered laurel bush that bears her name. Did Daphne then become a dryad herself, by divine intervention? Or must one be born into this blessed but precarious condition?

We must ask Elizabeth Moores, presiding genius of Papillon Perfumes. Her new perfume is named DRYAD and it’s a fragrance of an intense weird beauty. Elizabeth was kind enough to send me a sample to wear on my holidays. As my mood relaxed and my senses sharpened DRYAD smelled more and more divine – and increasingly subtle. I’m wearing it right now, on a glorious midsummer Sunday afternoon. To this old synaesthesic it is like a weightless mantle of gauze woven in lilac and dull gold, the colours of the orange, apricot and lavender which play such a bewitching part in its elaborate formula.

Am I picking up these particular notes because I’m lying at ease in a warm and balmy garden? As the year moves on – when I return to the bricky glare of London – will DRYAD rustle her wing cases and shake out her heavier earthier robes of galbanum, vetiver, oak moss, musk and clary sage?

I suspect she will for, even at this early stage, one is well aware of the unfathomable dense intricacy of this treasure. The rich resonant depths which have the critics comparing Elizabeth’s magic touch to that of a Guerlain or a Daltroff. And the connection is not only to these revered old masters. There is also a certain touch in DRYAD which reminds me of the gorgeous dressiness of Editions de Parfums’ new release SUPERSTITIOUS. Both perfumes hint at the smell, feel and texture of sumptuous fabrics. Ms Moores and Dominique Ropion have discretely caught the Zeitgeist most exactly – though in contrasting ways. Ropion dazzles us with the sweet shiny glare of satin, the sleekness of silk. SUPERSTITIOUS is buoyed up with a profusion of whalebone, and taffeta underskirts: the innermost wiring seen in the Balenciaga X-rays at the new V&A exhibition. Elizabeth Moores is more interested in the feral warmth of fur, the bite of leather; ells of creamy damp velvet wound around the stems of narcissi, jonquils and lilies. SUPERSTITIOUS has all the gloss of the atelier. DRYAD speaks more of the secrets of The Golden Bough, the seance and the innermost sanctuary of the shrine. It is a fragrance crammed full of Sybilline riddles and enigmas which I feel I am only just beginning to understand. And that’s the key to true perfume magic: the expert creation and manipulation of illusion.

Make no mistake: DRYAD is the very peak and pinnacle of a truly great perfume.

“To the woods!”

DRYAD is launching on the 10th of July right here at Les Senteurs.

Image credit: Thomas Dunckley of The Candy Perfume Boy

New Worlds to Conquer: HOMOELEGANS and others…

 

What about that heat, then? How did it affect you? In some ways it did me a lot of good – I was away from the shop and so able to surrender totally to the mercury, and relax. The intensity and ferocity of the sun put paid to my doing anything; even to the extent of shutting down my brain. It was impossible to worry or even to think very much. Delightful. I turned back to some novels of my youth and “lay on the lounge”, behind drawn curtains, like Elsie in What Katy Did. I also sprayed myself ad lib with alternate scents from the Liquides Imaginaires range: namely the dreamy floaty Roman bath experience of Tumultu and the duskier sweet desires of Fortis. Something about them suited the atmosphere of hypocaust very well.

And I re-read The Good Earth, that seismic best-seller of the 1930’s by the great but now almost forgotten Pearl S. Buck. She writes in stately rhythm, like an Old Testament prophet or a spinner of immemorial fairy tales. The Good Earth is an often horrific story of old rural China  – a real eye-opener. Mrs. Buck had been reared in Asia and she knew the score. (Incidentally, the actress Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar in 1938 for her portrayal of the long suffering drudge O-Lan in the MGM film treatment, was a great friend and loyal customer of Les Senteurs). Pearl Buck reminds us that perfume in the China of more than a century ago was an art, a luxury and a seduction. We read much of hair combed through with oil of sandalwood; frequent scented baths and powderings; ‘the perfuming of the eight orifices’; and the luscious aroma of Eight Jewel Rice when brought steaming to table.

(And Mrs. Buck also reminds us of a fragrance tip I’ve often mentioned to you. Be sure to perfume the palms of your hands).

I am always fascinated by the way writers and other creative artists approach perfume, odours and the sense of smell. I’m intrigued by how they celebrate the olfactory mystery, weaving it willy-nilly into various aspects of their creations. So naturally when Les Senteurs invited the sensational Italian brand HOMOELEGANS into the fold I was mightily intrigued and beguiled.

The first three scents in the HOMOELEGANS sequence – the trio we have right now in the shop – are inspired by the complex personalities and creations of three eccentric and tricky twentieth-century individuals. Namely, Thomas Mann, Francis Bacon and Frida Kahlo – two painters, one writer. Quite a handful!

I’ve written about Mann in this column before. His first great novel Buddenbrooks was published in 1904 – and was a huge best-seller in Germany for thirty years until the Hitler regime burned it. In this immense family saga, the sensual smells of good food and sleek grooming take their place in the repetitive rhythms, small hypnotic pleasures and joyous monotony of daily life. HOMOELEGANS approaches Mann via his much later work, Death In Venice: the stifling emotional atmospherics of the Lido; the fatal entrapment of the Lagoon.

Then, Frida Kahlo and Bacon. Francis Bacon’s paintings make me very sick: the very carnality of them reeks. He sees the Beast in us all and reveals it without mercy. I was advised to keep away from that bio-pic ‘Love Is the Devil’, and I heeded warning. Our English master at school used to tell us that Bacon’s pictures looked and smelled like reportage of slaughter houses. And those Popes! Velasquez was quite upsetting enough without Bacon imposing his own peculiar vision.

Much of Kahlo is bizarrely lovely: vivid, weird and mesmerising. The parrots and monkeys and hummingbirds; the surreal humour of “What I Saw In The Bath”; and Frida’s chthonic pre-Columbian fantasies. But she’s not exactly reassuring – and what about works such as “A Few Small Nips”? Very difficult to send to anyone when included in post-card collections. If you put the card inside an envelope – and the subject matter requires that decency – it seems even worse. As though one is a certain covert understanding with the recipient.

Anyone who is loves the enigma of perfumery will recognise that these three artists offer limited scope for a revolutionary approach to fragrance. Consider the way in which the mainstream media approaches scent. You’ll then appreciate how esoteric and even alien a subject perfume still is to many people. Only the other day a wireless presenter remarked on how difficult it is to talk about scent on air. I thought, now why do you say that? To me radio presentations and perfume have a lot in common: both are unseen, and their appeal lies principally in the magic of one’s own imagination.

So don’t take my word for it but come by and try these new beauties on our shelves. They are quite, quite extraordinary. And – as you would expect – headstrong,  ambisexual, wayward, even slightly perverse. There is an extreme ingenuity and subtlety in the way in which the perfumers have used three very disparate and complex characters & themes to create new life, energy and beauty. Art generating art; artifice breeding artifice.

But if that suggests something sterile and contrived then I am greatly misleading you. One of the key aspects of these three perfumes is their forceful impact; their visceral vivacity and vigour; their originality. All the elements that enthrall and disturb in the works of Kahlo, Mann and Bacon are evoked in the scents. A cruel beauty, a beautiful cruelty; fleshy textures and fleshly desire; colour; self-indulgence; pride; confidence and terror.