Mama Rose

martin-schongauer-madonna-of-the-roses-1342220404_b

Madonna of the Roses

Mothering Sunday falls on March 15 this year, which still leaves you time to choose a glorious perfume for that unique lady in your life. Maybe Mother has already dropped a hint as to what fragrance she would love as a gift; or perhaps you have a standing order for her favourite signature scent. If not, here are a few ruminations at the shrine of the modern Matronalia: potential perfumes to offer up with thanks at the altar of the Mother Goddess!

By and large the British are not so hot on botany but a rose is the one flower that everyone knows. It is a symbol of universal currency: even the name is basically the same in all the main European languages. The rose has not been on the planet as long as the Jurassic magnolia – flowers came late in evolution though they pre-date Man – but it has entranced us since anthropoid apes first stood upright and tucked blossoms in their fur.

Because of their universality, and due to their scent, delicacy, beauty, richness and colour, roses have accumulated a great body of lore and cult significance. The rose is the symbol of maternal love as well as of carnal passion. It represents altruistic suffering (the flowers sprang from the blood of Christ); or wounded rejected love (the thorns which injured baby Cupid). The goddess Aphrodite – “foam-born” – was blown ashore in a cloud of rose petals on the sands of antique Cyprus, the birthplace of perfumery. Roses are the emblem of the Queen of Heaven whether she be personified by Juno, Isis or the Blessed Virgin – “The Mystic Rose”. Mary appears in countless medieval paintings crowned with roses, or sitting with the Christ Child in bowers and arbours; even enthroned among the stamens of one vast Cosmic Rose, with angels swarming overhead like exotic insects attracted by the Divine Sweetness and Odour of Sanctity.

No wonder with all this tremendous back story we all think we know what a rose smells like; or what it should smell like. One of my favourite perfume legends is the rumour that Nahema, Guerlain’s gorgeous hymn to the Flower of Flowers does not contain a drop of rose oil: all is magnificent illusion, a dance of pink and crimson veils. What a stroke of genius that might be! Every perfumer longs to create the definitive rose scent, as he does the sheerest and most glittering of colognes. But in perfume terms, what is the scent of a rose? Should it be a beautiful template, like Garbo’s face, on which to project our olfactory desires and perceptions? Science now allows molecules to be identified, isolated and manipulated to the nth degree: yet a rose fragrance still remains one of the most controversial of creations – “THAT doesn’t smell like rose to ME!”

Consequently, Les Senteurs have cultivated an extensive nursery of roses on the shelves. Here come 12 of the best, in no particular order but all beautifully long-stemmed and worthy of Mother’s finest crystal vase. And we have plenty more to choose from,too, so why not come by before Sunday? Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

UNE ROSE by Editions de Parfums

Editions de Parfums - Une Rose

Editions de Parfums – Une Rose

Red wine, black truffles, blue camomile + Turkish rose. Stately and majestic.

ROSE ANONYME by Atelier Cologne

O8-RA 100ml Packshot
Hot dark nights spiced with ginger, incense, oud and patchouli.

TOBACCO ROSE by Papillon

Papillon - Tobacco Rose

Papillon – Tobacco Rose

Heady surreal clouds of overblown rose, beeswax, honey and patchouli.

DELIRE DES ROSES by Caron.

Caron - Delire de Roses

Caron – Delire de Roses

Sweet and diaphanous; jasmine, lychee & lotus at a cool poolside.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY by Editions de Parfums

portrait of a lady 100ml

Editions de Parfums – Portrait of a Lady

Turkish roses fizzing with spices,patchouli and amber. Audaciously elegant: a silver frost melting to golden sun.

LIPSTICK ROSE by Editions de Parfums

Editions de Parfums - Lipstick Rose

Editions de Parfums – Lipstick Rose

Raspberries, vanilla and the scent of a gleaming lipstick warmed on a lovely mouth.

UNE ROSE VERMEILLE by Tauer Perfumes

Tauer Perfumes - Une Rose Vermeille

Tauer Perfumes – Une Rose Vermeille

Sweet, creamy rosebuds served with cream in a silver bowl. Playful & joyous.

A LA ROSE by Maison Francis Kurkdjian

Maison Francis Kurkdjian - A La Rose

Maison Francis Kurkdjian – A La Rose

Inspired by the pastoral portraits of Marie Antoinette; a rococo cascade of pink champagne.

FLEURS DE BULGARIE by Creed

Creed - Fleurs de Bulgarie

Creed – Fleurs de Bulgarie

A favourite of the young Queen Victoria, lover of flamboyance and colour: crazily deep, dark and intense Bulgarian roses.

HIPPIE ROSE by Heeley

Heeley - Hippie Rose

Heeley – Hippie Rose

Hommage to the 1960’s and that Summer of Love: take a lovin’ spoonful of incense and patchouli with your roses.

PAESTUM ROSE by Eau d’Italie

Eau d'Italie - Paestum Rose

Eau d’Italie – Paestum Rose

Roman temples and the votaresses of Venus: myrrh, coriander & osmanthus.

ISPARTA by Parfumerie Generale

Parfumerie Generale - Isparta

Parfumerie Generale – Isparta

Turkish rose oil sharpened by piquant red fruits and deepened with woods and aromatic resins.

Wishing you all a very Happy & Loving Mothering Sunday!

…and of course, Quite Alone…

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

Madeleine Smith: a vignette

I have mentioned before the case of Madeleine Smith and the excellent film based thereon made by David Lean in 1950 starring his then wife, Ann Todd (variously described by contemporary PR as “the British Garbo” or “the Pocket Garbo”). I never met Miss Todd though I saw her once in rural Suffolk of all places (adjoining holiday houses) and heard her announced over the tannoy backstage at Stratford Upon Avon – “Miss Tutin and Miss Todd for Dame Peggy!” Though I have always imagined her brunette, Madeleine Smith is perfectly incarnated by the glacial almost albino blonde Todd, wearing probably the most authentic crinolines ever seen on screen. The facts of the case presented are also reliable and accurate, if necessarily telescoped.

The eldest daughter of a prosperous Glasgow family, Smith was tried in 1857 for the murder of her former lover, a Frenchman named L’Angelier by whom she had been seduced and to whom she had written indiscreet letters with which he attempted to blackmail her. L’Angelier died in agonies of arsenic poisoning: Madeleine Smith was said to have administered this in a cup of cocoa. The defence claimed she had purchased the poison only to whiten her skin. The uniquely Scottish verdict of the court was Not Proven; David Lean’s presentation of characters and case is so detached and remote that the viewer is inclined to concur, foxed by Smith/Todd’s elegant inscrutability. The costume design complements the enigmatic character of Madeleine remarkably. I have discussed her shoes in an earlier piece but we should also note her headgear, a succession of plumed and furred hats and toques: is she a trapped animal, enmeshed by the predatory L’Angelier? Or is Madeleine herself the bird of prey? A wild animal turning in ferocious panic on her persecutor? Even when finally trapped in the dock,her severe if chic bonnet is trimmed with a feather. Only in her introductory scene, before we know anything of her intrigues, do we see a young girl crowned with flowers.

Those who relish the ciphers and codes and short-hand of old cinema, so adroitly used by directors to circumvent the censor, will find a great deal to appreciate here. Note the frequent close-ups of L’Angelier’s cane with which he makes much swagger. Look out for the scene where after an evening in the drawing-room with her parents and prospective fiancee, Madeleine surreptitiously puts on scent before slipping out into the sodden basement area to meet her lover.

“Madeleine…you are wearing perfume..” he says throatily; the rain comes down in stair rods in a sudden storm, and it is immediately clear in those four words that he sees her (and maybe she is) as a completely abandoned woman – and treats her as such. Wearing perfume in middle class Victorian Glasgow is akin to wearing the scarlet letter

Lean and his team were of a generation almost within touching distance of the case: Madeleine Smith had only been dead for some 20 years (she went to the USA after the trial and is said to have invented the table mat). They knew how significant it was for a respectable girl then to put on perfume. Remember the chapter in Little Women in which Meg goes to a dance at a wealthy friend’s and is induced to “polish..her neck and arms with some fragrant powder” to Laurie’s intense disapproval and her own subsequent deep shame. Even as late as 1922/23, as her inspired biographer Rene Weis notes, during the uproar surrounding the trial and execution of Edith Thompson lurid tabloid pieces made much of her prodigious use of perfume and scented baths: a sure sign of supposed depravity. L’Angelier’s line in the movie is a masterstroke of compression and allusion: audiences in 1950 probably read it more clearly than those today. Like Deborah Kerr’s clipping on of an earring in The End of the Affair; and Fred MacMurray kicking the rug straight in Double Indemnity it speaks volumes of passionate and ultimately tragic illicit sex.

So what perfume is Madeleine wearing for her lover? Who can say? She buys rosewater for her younger sister in a later scene; has money in her pocket and access to her father’s account at the chemist-apothecary. Her own taste in dress is shown to be impeccable; she is elegant, fastidious and in the fashion. I think the scent would be chosen to please the lover rather than herself. Miss Smith might have shared her sister’s rose or perhaps lavender water: she takes a bottle of the latter to court with her. Madeleine (L’Angelier’s passionate “Mimi”) probably chooses musk, civet or ambergris, the legendary aphrodisiacs of antiquity. I do not think a perfume that would have been available in 1857 now exists in its original form: animal rights and health and safety legislation have outlawed so many of the old ingredients, and our tastes in fragrance have radically changed. But let’s compose a theoretical formula for Madeleine. Something of the creamy soft muskiness of Musc Ravageur; the pungent civet of the original Jicky and Mouchoir; the animal leatheriness of Knize Ten; the density and richness of Phul Nana; the hot powdery voluptuousness of Ambre Precieux. And finally the narcotic intensity of the Bulgarian roses of Creed’s Fleurs de Bulgarie: a perfume that in its prototype form originated in the 1840’s. Cruel, peppery, lascivious roses not baby-pink buds. Just as posterity and Lean’s film leaves us in suspense as to Madeleine Smith’s guilt or innocence, so must her fragrance: but, as my grandmother always used to say, “they can’t hang you for thinking”.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

60 Glorious Years!

Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation

Les Senteurs salutes Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee: 60 glorious years in the style of her great great grandmother Victoria, just the two of them having achieved this feat in the thousand years since the Conquest. Only the reigns of George III and Henry III come close: 10 years ago, Her Majesty said she thought she could give the latter a run for his money, and this she has done with elan. George III has been pipped by a matter of weeks. Long Live the Queen!

Let’s have a look at some suitably queenly scents for the occasion. Creed has been a supplier of couture and perfume to royalty for 250 years so we might start with Fleurs de Bulgarie, a blood-red Bulgarian rose fragrance based on a formula offered to Queen Victoria in the days when she was herself young, passionate and rosy. Madly in love with the beautiful Albert (who she noted wore nothing beneath his cashmere breeches) Victoria adored brilliant colours, jewels, musky perfumes and eye-popping dresses – once turning up on a State Visit to Paris in an outfit trimmed with geraniums and clutching a large bag crotcheted with a bold poodle motif. Fleurs de Bulgarie is magnificently opulent and intense; roses all the way blended with sandalwood, musk and ambergris. It sits like the Black Prince’s ruby in the Crown Imperial – glowing and exotic.

Creed owe a huge debt to Napoleon III’s Empress, the Spanish beauty Eugenie de Montijo, for their establishment in France in the 1850’s. With her abundant red-gold hair, quizzical butterfly eyebrows and huge violet eyes Eugenie followed in the steps of her idol Marie Antoinette by making Paris the fashion capital of the world. The couturier Worth was brought over from Lincoln to design the Empress’s vast crinolines; and as the Empire faded and the crinoline began to evolve into the bustle, Creed presented their prototype for what is now Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie – a sumptuous powdery oriental, with a palpitating heart of jasmine on a creamy base of iris,vanilla and musk. It has the gift of evoking the fabrics and style of the era – taffeta, velvet, organdie, bombazine, crepe, brocade, satin – and in the mind’s eye reflects their colour: violet, the newly invented magenta, snowy ermine and glossy black sables, the parure of imperial amethysts you can see today in the Louvre.

Still on the Creed shelf there’s Fleurissimo, that white and green hyper-floral which captures the frosted magnolia beauty of Princess Grace; and Millesime Imperial, launched in 1994 to celebrate 140 years of service by Creed to the Imperial Courts of Europe. Fleurissimo is one of those exquisitely thought-out fragrances which perfectly evokes the woman to whom it pays homage: cool, beautiful, elegant, a little reserved but magnificently sensuous. Spray a little and you see the likeness of Her Serene Highness shimmer before you.

The scents and creams of E.Coudray, all got up in pink, ivory and gilded packaging, make wonderful Jubilee gifts, either for oneself or for a dear one: this House has been in business since the 1820’s and once shipped toiletries and perfumes out to the Emperor of Brazil and the Tsars of Russia. Victoria, too, was a loyal client: what we tend to forget is that 120 years ago, this tiny old lady in black was the centre of the world – she was on the list of every tradesman on the planet, from Windsor to Kabul.

Grossmith of London made the sparkling floral Betrothal for the wedding of Victoria’s grandson, the future George V, to Princess May of Teck. May became Queen Mary, the lady who famously advised, “never miss an opportunity to use a lavatory”; and who was so intrigued by the harvest fields of Badminton during World War Two – “so, THIS is hay…!” A blonde Gemini subject, the sophisticated champagne floweriness of this gorgeous green scent was perfectly suited to the wearer. Detractors of Mary – and of Victoria – tend to forget they were both Geminians: interested in everything, intensely feminine, fascinated by the the realm of the senses. And of course also blessed with the concomitant shortcomings…

Now our own dear Queen is a stolid faithful Taurus, loyal and true. It would be vain and impudent to speculate on her choice of scent, but the Taurean generally avoids anything too heavy, too cloying or sweet and that seems to fit the Royal profile. Something lightly crisply floral I would imagine is her personal preference.

May she wear it in Good Health and Joy this Jubilee Year!

We remember Victoria’s superb reply to one of her many grandchildren (I think it was Princess Marie Louise) who said after the Diamond Jubilee drive to St Paul’s amid the cheering masses, “O! Grandmama! How proud you must feel!”

“No, dear child: very humble…”

I feel that our Queen would echo this.

Crinoline + Creed

The very nature of fashion dictates that what is ravishing to one generation seems hideous to another. Women’s styles of 100 years ago look exquisitely elegant in contemporary fashion plates and when cunningly recreated with the subtlest of 21st century slants for Downton Abbey. But informal photographs of 1912 are often horribly disillusioning, showing women as dishevelled bundles of clothing, topped by frizzled hair scorched + dried by curling tongs. Note too, the popularity of the sexy double chin and jowls for 18th century men and Edwardian ladies; and the egg-like facial look – no eyebrows or lashes – beneath those romantic fifteenth century wired butterfly veils. Anne of Cleves has been the butt of history’s clumsy wit for nearly 500 years as Henry VIII’s ugly wife, “the Flanders mare”; but if you bother to look at her portraits you will agree with novelist Margaret Campbell Barnes that to the modern eye she was by far and away the most attractive of the six queens with her heavy-lidded Dietrich eyes; and unlike the others she even manages a faint smile (unusual and risque in portraiture of her time).

Consider that sartorial turn-on of the 1850’s and 60’s, the cage or crinoline – a vast bell-like construction of hoops of whalebone and steel which stretched out the skirts to outlandish dimensions thus incidentally keeping ‘Punch’ and all the satirical magazines in material for a decade. The crinoline had its origins in the Elizabethan farthingale, the intention of which in its native prudish Spain was to conceal pregnancy, and keep men at a distance simply by the egregious width of one’s dress. In its Victorian version it became more explicitly erotic: it drew attention to the tiny tight-laced waist (this was the time before the triumph of the bosom as erogenous zone); it made the arms look slenderer and the hands more fragile in comparison; and the hoops swayed and dipped in an alluring way as the wearer walked or danced, revealing (ideally) dainty neat feet + ankles. Everything then but the breadth of your skirt and the width of your eyes must needs be in miniature. A tiny fragile woman, gasping for air due to the restrictions of her stays, and imprisoned in her clothes: this was the erotic ideal of our great great grandfathers. Weird, you might think…but not so far in concept from today’s highest heels and the latest trends in Spandex.

But what made the crinoline so controversial, and led Queen Victoria to initially ban its wearing at Court, was that wearing it did away for the need to wear the old-fashioned plethora of petticoats and this was thought highly indecent. And what’s more it could be dangerously unstable: crinolines blew up in the wind, got caught on carriage wheels and stuck in doorways; and tipped up at an alarmingly revealing angle if you sat down without due manipulation. This led to the sudden popularity in the wearing of knickers, previously used only by actresses and harlots, the reasoning being that no decent woman would ever come near to revealing her nether regions in public and so had no need of panties: the risky crinoline changed this. Though not apparently in France where one of the Empress Eugenie’s dames d’honneur tripped on her hoops, fell and gave the visiting King of Savoy an unexpected eyeful.

Of course the crinoline predates the first milestones of modern perfumery by a good twenty years, but we can still catch a whiff of the scents of the period in three surviving Creed fragrances. Fabric patterns were exceedingly dramatic to emphasise the dimensions of the skirts: broad bold stripes, flouncing and heavy trimmings were de rigueur. Colours of the period were loud, thanks to the gaudy new aniline dyes: part of the huge chemical advances that would soon transform perfumes. So emerald, canary yellow, electric blue and magenta were well balanced by the heavy heady scent of Bulgarian rose, jasmine, musk and ambergris that are redolent in what we now know as Creed‘s Fantasia des Fleurs, Fleurs de Bulgarie and Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie. Obviously all three have been trimmed, tailored and refined over 150 years, but what we smell today gives some idea of those heady blends of flower and animal oils that would have been dabbed on the handkerchiefs only of modest women; while the more daring of the new knicker-wearers may have touched their hair and wrists with a perfume-stopper. Eugenie, incidentally, was the patroness not only of Creed but also of Charles Worth, the boy from Lincoln who went to Paris and as Collins Dictionary says, “founded Parisian haute couture”.
Together, he and the Empress were responsible for the launching the crinoline craze.

These are big scents for big clothes: to be worn with velvet, bombazine, satin, furs, veils and never without gloves and hats outside the home. Fans, muffs and bouquets were all essential accessories. Smelling these perfumes in context helps to make much more sense of these extravagant, delicious but strange creations. It brings them to life on their own terms. Not so good maybe worn with t-shirts and jeans; and not at all, as the ignorant have it, “old ladies’ smells”, but once paraded by Queens, Empresses and courtesans at the apogee of their beauty and style: Eugenie, Elisabeth, Cora Pearl, La Paiva – the female fashion leaders of Europe.
Perfumes to dress up for and live up to.
Now there’s a challenge for a Diamond Jubilee year!

Image from Wikimedia Commons