All In The Mind

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“The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” ¤ 
Round about this time the sluggish torpor of mid-winter begins to lift. You realise that, despite all expectations, a new energy is charging you up, to – hopefully – see you through another year. The sunshine and anticipatory tingle of a single perfect blue day is a promissory note of spring. The light now lasts till after tea. The pink clouds of shepherd’s delight – last night, spreading like an explosion of rose petals – don’t spatter across the sky till gone half past five. The dark begins to retreat, and chilly fresh flowery smells start to emerge once more in the garden. The snowdrops have come, and the first crocus are open. As I grow older, February – formerly loathed and despised¤¤ – now seems one of the more hopeful of months.
They were talking about the wild life and hard times of Lionel – “OLIVER!” – Bart on the wireless. I remember he had a great love of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, that perfumed dying of the light. In the lean years of his old age, the composer would come into Harrods for a spray-up on the Guerlain counter. In those generous days, the kindly staff would rummage in the bins and the stock-rooms for exhausted L’Heure Bleue testers from which a final precious drop might be squeezed.
Perfume is, above all, a wilful creature of moods, impressions and fantasy. We talk a great deal about sillage, tenacity, batch numbers, raw ingredients and projection: but in the final analysis the magic of fragrance is all in the mind. Most of us interpret scent in an entirely subjective way. The creamy waxen glory of sambac or ylang ylang is, for some, redolent more of bicycle tyres or penny bubblegum than the secret gardens of the Jungle Princess. Remember Giorgio Beverley Hills? The party line described it as an explosion of jasmine and gardenias. I always smelled pineapple sorbet. And that, I liked. One takes whatever one chooses from a scent, and revels in it. The rest doesn’t matter.
Mr Bart’s L’Heure Bleue is notorious for the wildly different associations it evokes. To many it represents the apogee of Edwardian opulence, the frou frou of a lost golden age. This is a view which gains assurance from the continued availability of L’Heure Bleue’s cousins – Apres L’Ondee and (proudly at Les Senteurs) – Grossmith’s feathery powdery Shem-El-Nessim. Other people smell L’Heure Bleue as cakey feasts of almond marzipan; dusty clove carnations in the dentist’s waiting room; or the exhausted sadness of shadowy funerals. None of these images define the perfume: they are the fantasies (sometimes shared) of individuals.
One of the great liberating joys of experiencing perfume is that you can do with it exactly as you will. When we have the joy of welcoming new clients to Les Senteurs, I often say to our visitors, “everyone here does just as he likes”. By which I mean, that we are always on hand – if required – to help, advise and explain: but, in the final analysis, every visitor must feel free to interpret, choose and wear fragrance exactly as she or he chooses. That’s the only work required.
It is possible – I hope not, but it is conceivable – that occasionally the way we describe a fragrance may jar uncomfortably with the image in a client’s mind. It is inevitable, really. The old rigour and definition of the traditional perfume families have long since flown out the window. Nowadays (and, wonderfully) perfumers have access to such a plethora of raw materials that their combinations and formulae are both startling and infinite. A consequent ‘semi-floriental gourmand fougere’ is almost impossible to categorise definitively. And to pick it apart atom by molecule would be to break a butterfly on a wheel. Perfume language still being in the olfactory Stone Age, I prefer to speak in metaphor, if not in tongues. One can only suggest; and paint a personal picture.
But, of course:
 “I say to-MAH-toes
You say to-MAY-toes…”
As my dear father used to remark, it’s as well we all think differently or some of us would be killed in the rush. People discover fragrance in the most unlikely places. When Anne Baxter first goes backstage to meet Bette Davis in reel two of All About Eve the camera lingers on all the friendly dusty squalor behind the scenes – and on the lady hoovering in the Stalls out front.
Says Baxter:
‘You can smell it, can’t you? Like some magic perfume…’
You pays your money and you takes your choice. But always with pleasure – and, of course, always at Les Senteurs.
Thank you.
¤ Isaiah 35.
¤¤ “Messieurs janvier et fevrier sont mes meilleurs genereaux!” – Tsar Nicholas 1st.

That Glittering Night At The Ball

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Only a century ago a parade of unending entertainments was considered essential for the making of upper class marriages. In every European capital the arrival of the summer Season saw flocks of girls in white muslin and tulle herded by their chaperones to Court presentations and Society balls, opera galas, luncheons, dinners, teas, recitals, picnics and garden parties.

Prior to these outings the young ladies were prepared like lambs for the slaughter in a sensual ritual and with a faintly prurient glee that recalls the films of Max Ophuls and the novels of Stefan Zweig. Firstly the clothes: one began with a voluminous shift. Then in the Naughty Nineties knickers, which were just coming to be seen as decent and desirable rather than racy whorish accessories. Over the stays and countless starched boned & lacy petticoats, a girl’s dress must be white and made of virginal light fabrics such as muslin, gauze and tarlatan. The waist was tiny – even after having six children Queen Alexandra kept a waist that never exceeded 23″. A maiden’s decolletage should be generous, but jewellery was minimal: a christening gift maybe or a present from mama and papa – seed pearls, corals, a silver bangle and a tiny turquoise brooch in the shape of a dove. Long skin-tight buttoned kid gloves and a small posy of flowers in a filigree holder were de rigueur. Later, after a proposal of marriage, a bouquet might be sent round by the lucky gentleman concerned, but otherwise any gift to a decent young woman from a man outside the family was regarded as presumptuous indecency. Virtuous women prided themselves on never accepting presents.

Then the ingenue required a fan, ordered from Duvellroy or Faberge (London, Paris and St Petersburg). Her dancing shoes, with the soles carefully powdered, were laid out by the lady’s maid: she being lent by mama for the evening and in a mood both sentimental & archly suggestive. A tiny vial of sal volatile was tucked into the palm of a new glove in case of faintness after a brisk polka or vertiginous waltz. Sometimes an admirer might press a hand too ardently and the glass would break, emitting pungent fumes. For the face, just a touch of barely tinted lip salve, a film of papier poudre on the cheeks and maybe a hint of rouge if the excitement of the occasion was causing unbecoming pallor. Then a swansdown wrap round the shoulders, a scarf to protect the intricately piled hair and maybe a serviceable mackintosh cloak, even a sheet, draped over all to protect the finery in the carriage, to be thrown off at the last moment before the shy entry into the ballroom.

And what of scent? It is no more than a hint, a whisper, an echo of Pear’s or Cusson’s soap. Maybe a Coty floral water (as worn by the Russian Imperial Grand Duchesses) sprinkled on the handkerchief, a drop of rose attar in the hand cream or a glistening in the hair pomade. But nothing actually on the skin. Scented flesh is, for the late Victorians, highly risque, the mark of a Naughty Lady, a very Merry Widow, a barmaid, a strumpet. A strong-minded nobly-born lady can just about get away with it, though few will dare. They won’t run the risk of being banned from Court or the houses of their dear friends.

But the holistically perfumed woman is yet flamboyant and magnificent in sequinned violet, mauve, magenta and rose satin, fragrant from its sandalwood chest and herb-lined cedar closet. She is crowned with osprey aigrettes and bird of paradise plumes. Her scarves, handkerchiefs and gloves are soaked in oils of ambergris, Russian leather, jasmine and musk. Her hair, gleaming with bear grease scented with ylang ylang, has been conditioned with the Empress of Austria’s own blend of a bottle of brandy and a dozen egg yolks. She wears a corsage of mauve orchids, and trails two yards of train (lined with crumpled tissue paper to rustle the louder) with the intoxicating sillage of Houbigant’s Fougere Royale, Grossmith’s Phul Nana, the mauve powdery Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie or an early Caron masterpiece. The Merry Widow’s redolent hummingbird fan is used not to conceal her blushes but to cool her after too much iced champagne or too sprightly a hop in the mazurka. Perspiration is her only enemy, to be combated with sweat pads, borax, vinegar and rice powder. But oh! the horror when a certain dampness appears around the waist line after working through a full dance card or too many oyster patties. Fortunately the gentlemen,too,are all wearing gloves, too. Or – as in the notorious case of Lillie Langtry’s new pink gown being ruined in the waltz by the dripping hands of a teenage Archduke Rudolph – not!

Treats

Elizabeth Taylor

Apparently there is no word in French for “treat” because the concept does not exist: in France life is one long treat. For myself the heyday of the treat was my early childhood in the 1950’s. We had enough money and my parents were far from strict, they were indulgent indeed: but daily life was so circumscribed and low-key that the smallest relaxation of routine seemed hedonistic. John XXIII was then writing of the moral dangers of treats, holidays being especially suspect as Occasions of Sin. Being allowed a glass of milk (generally forbidden) was as exciting as a trip to the pantomime: the magic of “Goldilocks” (the bears lived in a huge revolving house) at Nottingham stayed with me for years. So did a bowl of cauliflower soup and being allowed to float matches down the river at Dovedale the following summer. Reckless extravagance: and I couldn’t get over the exoticism of that hotel soup, billed as creme du Barry. I have been a fan of the eponymous inspiration ever since: the cauliflower is supposed to resemble the great courtesan’s powdered hair, by the way.

Of a Sunday, my father would cut a Mars Bar (had we children been lucky enough to have been given one) into wafer slices and we would be offered one apiece after lunch. The rest was then put away for another time. I was sometimes taken to my maternal grandmother’s to watch half an hour of television; once a year we went to the local zoo or met our cousins at Warwick Castle for a picnic. Until the mid-1960’s the purchase of ice cream (as opposed to ice lollies) was unheard of: my grandmother believed that the commercial version was made and stored under the bed – so that was out.

All these treats were planned, discussed – and remembered for a lifetime. Therefore, we were overwhelmed and over-excited by the Liberty Hall atmosphere at my paternal grandfather’s. He lived with his daughter at the other end of the village: both had a great zest for life. My aunt was – still is – an intensely romantic and glamorous personality and we’d start the afternoon with a game of “Jane Eyre” in her bedroom – aunty being the mad wife roaring & raving in the bed. As she’d bagged the best part there wasn’t much for the rest of us to do except scream, and then explore the dressing table and the wardrobe.

No shortage of treats here: my aunt adored perfume and had many admirers. She is the only woman I have known who once had champagne drunk from her slipper – “messy”. Scent was then the supreme adult treat. It was said to be imported from Paris at ruinous cost, applied with great and cautious ceremony and worn on only the most significant of occasions. A bottle lasted for years: children were not supposed to touch but I remember flacons and their labels being all stained and gummy with drips and drops from what I suppose were now-outlawed ingredients. You knew something monumental was afoot when perfume was in the air, and I think even then I realised that the application of scent implied heightened emotions and consequently tension, if not ructions, in the adult world.

On that fascinating dressing table in the icy blue bedroom I first smelled Coty’s Muguet des Bois, Ma Griffe, Femme, Cabochard, Quelques Fleurs, Tweed (“The Finishing Touch”) and the Grossmith runaway bestseller White Fire which was a novelty then: it was launched 60 years ago this autumn. Dry, flowery, powerful, aldehydic
White Fire gusts through my memories wafting from car coats and accordion pleated skirts, mingling with the smell of hair spray, face powder and setting lotion. One caught a whiff of it at Sports Days, Carol Services and tennis teas. It was not only delicious, exuberant and tenacious, but an empire product, too – “made in Britain” – which to many was an added benefit. To me it is inseparable from those crinolined summer dresses (‘Horrockses Frocks’), white gloves and Aertex shirts which marked the setting forth on a great occasion in the 1950’s, everyone twitching with nerves: “I’ll smack the back of your legs!” Nowadays everyone seems to reel from one treat to another: we have become so blase and spoiled. If someone gave me a treat today I don’t think I’d quite know what to do with it. But a smell of long-ago White Fire – ah! Now, that I would love…

Les Senteurs and Grossmith Invitation

Kiss me, my fool.

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To celebrate the centenary of its release I sat down and watched ‘A Fool There Was’ on the You Tube: the great sex shocker of 1914 which propelled Theda Bara upon the world, the first screen femme fatale: The Vamp. Hard to believe that an almost mythic movie has played for 100 years. Bara (nee Goodman) died, not old, the year I was born. Refused a certificate in Great Britain, the movie still retains the power to shock, not by its prurience but in the final shots of a man reduced to human wreckage and total physical & psychological degradation. I squeaked aloud in my chair. ‘Some of him lived / but the most of him died’ reads the title card. It’s a theme that von Sternberg and Dietrich returned to with even greater effect some 15 years later: a pillar of society reduced by sex to a baying, dying beast.

Theda Bara has less to do in the film than I had imagined: she is taller, too, and rather more attractive. She was probably the cinema’s first brunette leading lady, the original wicked dark-haired temptress, a creature of the Night destroying the daughters of Light and their lawful wedded husbands. Her wide mouth is covered in lip rouge which photographs as black, and her huge inky eyes are liberally smeared with Vaseline and candle smoke. She is heaped with clothes in the especially hideous styles of the day; in one sequence her feet become entangled in her fish tail train. I can’t decide whether this is a cute device to give the viewer an eyeful of her ankles or whether the director either didn’t notice or couldn’t be bothered to cut.

Roses, cruelly used, are her leit motif. We first see the Vamp smelling two flowers, then tearing them to pieces: the destruction of her prey, the denial of her own femininity, the end of innocence. In one sequence of startling phaliic symbolism she disarms a rejected admirer who draws a gun on her by stroking the the revolver – now detumescent and redundant – with the rose she carries. Whereat the wretched man shoots himself.

The Vamp and her confreres play cards, loll around half-dressed, let down their back hair and indulge in a lot of what my mother used to call ‘posturing’. But interestingly perfume is not part of the picture. Scent does not appear though the viewer rather anticipates shots of atomisers and drenching showers of musky fragrance as an additional sign of shameless sin. After all this film was made in a Golden Age of perfume: L’Heure Bleue, Jicky, Quelques Fleurs, Narcisse Noir, Phul Nana, Shem-El-Nessim and the early Coty repertoire were all by then on the dressing tables of the rich & fashionable.

Maybe Theda Bara’s director – Frank Powell – felt that his Vamp should exude her own seductive and noxious aroma, like a night-blooming flesh-eating flower; that she should lure men to their doom by an involuntarily secreted deadly & delectable unnatural odour. Writings and novels of this period describe scent as being emitted by hair, clothing, furs, fabrics and furnishings rather than by the skin …” a faint delicious fragrance hung about her..”. But perfume actually poured onto the skin? Or oozing from it? A subject then ‘too difficult even to talk about’ as the adverts used to say. Too animal, too raw, too downright carnal: ideal for Theda Bara.

Now all you have to do is run the movie!

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 10 – Marble Arch

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As children in the faraway Midlands we sang a nonsense song about the Marble Arch into which you could slot the name of any celebrity of your choice:

“Around the Marble Arch
X used to march
He tumbled into a box of eggs
All the yellow ran up his legs..”

So when I finally got to touch the beautiful if slightly foxed chunks of white Italian marble I still saw all those spattered yolks in my mind’s eye. It’s a funny old thing and tunnelled with little rooms, apparently. Marooned in the middle of the traffic since Park Lane was widened over half a century ago the Arch is now scratched by graffittists and, as the London papers keep pointing out, is on occasion used as a loo.

Even before it became a traffic island Marble Arch was a displaced wanderer. It started life in 1827 as the gateway to Buckingham Palace but was brought up in sections to Marylebone when the Palace was enlarged, to be rebuilt as the ceremonial entrance to the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in the summer of 1851. The bronze statue of George IV – that heavily-perfumed consumer of cherry brandy, opium and pork pies – originally designed to ride atop the Arch now prances in Trafalgar Square.

May 1st 1851 was the Marble Arch’s finest hour: Queen Victoria in pink satin and lace swept through in her carriage to open the Crystal Palace ( erected near to where the Albert Memorial now stands ). The great glass conservatory was filled with birds, living cedars, vast organs and choirs whose voices could scarcely be heard for the sheer size and scale of it all. Prince Albert, whose brainchild the exhibition was, stood resplendent in scarlet gazing at the tribute of the Empire; a mysterious Mandarin in blue silk and peacock feathers who was later said to be someone’s cook made the ritual kow tow.

And perfume was present. Fragrance was featured. Our Grossmith friends won medals. Eugene Rimmel’s huge baroque fountain of living scents was one of the star attractions during the six month run of the show. Perfume has always drawn the crowds: renew your own acquaintance Les Senteurs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hello, Dolly!

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Some of our younger visitors & staff say they couldn’t possibly walk from Les Senteurs to Selfridge’s. Take heart! it only takes 5 minutes. This fabulous store was once the out-of-hours playground of the glittering and quasi-mythical Dolly Sisters, daughters of a Hungarian tailor and one of the great cabaret acts of the Roaring Twenties. Were they identical twins, Rosie being the slightly more ample and amorous of the two? Or, as used to be rumoured, was there a decade between them, relying on artful maquillage to close the gap? Their success spawned a slew of sister acts including the two Norwegian boys who became the toast of Paris parodying the Dolly act as “The Rocky Twins”.

The eponymous Gordon Selfridge (sharing the accolade with Dorothy Lamour of being the Marshall Field department store’s greatest U.S. export) fell for the Dollies hook line and sinker and transferred them from a flat in St Martins Lane to the huge mansion off Berkeley Square which is now the Landsdowne Club. Disastrously he laid on continuous late night store openings exclusively for the girls – who naturally helped themselves to whatever took their eye. And that was more likely to be sables, platinum and pearls than bread rolls or stationery.

But as we know from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

“He’s your guy
When stocks are high
But beware when they start to descend..”

The stars of this curious fun-loving menage burned out in the 1930’s with the collapse of the world economy: ill health, bankruptcy and lost looks put an end to all three of them. But Selfridges itself still dances on, as gay and glittering as ever; though the bright young people no longer demonstrate the Charleston on the roofs of passing London cabs and the treasure hunts through the vast departments have long ended. And the exotic perfumes that once enfolded Rosie and Jenny Dolly – Molinard, Caron, Coudray, Isabey, Grossmith, Knize, Houbigant – stream like a scented shimmering ribbon back to the blue door of Les Senteurs, just five minutes up the road.

Image: verhext.com

Vignettes of Old Marylebone 1: Home thoughts from Abroad

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One of the most famous and romantic addresses in Marylebone, a few minutes brisk walk from LES SENTEURS, is 50 Wimpole Street. Here the invalid Elizabeth Barrett spent long sad years on her sofa and from here she eloped to Italy with her future husband Robert Browning: two poets who fell in love via their work. The set-up is legendary: the vague but distressing illness;  the monster Papa with the dreaded tankard of medicinal porter; the numerous doting siblings; the hysterical scenes; the devoted maid Wilson and the spaniel Flush. The whole boiling  of them piled into that grim house dominated by old Mr Barrett’s possessiveness and neuroses. Elizabeth lived behind windows sealed up against London fogs and soot, the glass panes covered in summer with trailing nasturtiums. She was almost elderly by the standards of her day (over 40 ) but with her dark mournful face, soulful eyes and luxuriant ringlets to rival her dog’s she remains a figure of high romance, a mysterious captive princess finally rescued by an adoring younger man from the fashionable but alien chasms of Marylebone. Highly political, blazingly intelligent, fascinated by spiritualism and the struggle for Italian independence Elizabeth bloomed again in the warm air of Florence and even bore a healthy son at the age of 43.

”This verbena strains the point of passionate fragrance…” she writes in Aurora Leigh, a poem saturated in sensuous imagery which some think was fired up by her chronic dependence on opium and laudanum. When you’ve found Mrs Browning’s Blue Plaque, meander back to LES SENTEURS and smell our Verveine d’Eugene by James Heeley; and those 3 flowers of late Victoriana by Grossmith Phul Nana, Hasu no Hana and Shem el Nessim. Surrender to the spell.

 

Come To Bed Eyes

Kind regular readers of this page will know that I have a penchant for perfumes redolent of the unconscious and the realms of sleep. The bedroom is the room where I prefer to be: years ago I was told by a friend in analysis that this is a bad sign, a refusal to confront Life. This I doubt seeing as how our indubitably vigorous and confrontational medieval forefathers revered the bedroom as the only private space in manor or castle: a luxury to which the poor, bedded down with the cattle and pigs, could not aspire. A room for contemplation and introspection: the scene of birth, begetting and dying. The holy of holies of the home and family. Now, a reversion to life in the bathroom – a return to the warm waters from which we all sprang – that really is a worrying development, as witness the endings-up of Callas, Marat and Blanche Dubois.

Two scents to loll alongside you on the pillows, then: Poudre de Riz and Cologne Pour Le Matin. Both mesmeric and hypnotic, perfumes to drowse and lull. The germ of Poudre de Riz comes from the Belle Epoque novel “L’enfer”, a classic study of voyeurism in which a jaded gentleman spies through a hole in his hotel bedroom wall at the changing scenes of love next door. Pierre Guillaume’s creation catches the languor of spent passion, slaked desire – the scent of those observed, not of the Peeping Tom. It is also the odour of that crimson room of assignation where Emma Bovary and her lover meet at Rouen; the powdery pearly smell of Lea’s great temple-of-love bed in Colette’s “Cheri”. Pan-sexual, sweet and ambiguous Poudre is the aura created by love and its practitioners – a close, airless evocation of hair and warm skin gleaming with monoi oil and nacreous with sheer rice powder. An emanation of crepe de chine, lace, silk and feather bolsters. Compare it if you like with an authentic Edwardian fragrance, Shem el Nessim: there, too, is frou frou and susurration – but Poudre de Riz is emphatically interior and intimate while the Grossmith cracker is for the grands boulevards. Poudre is marabou, chiffon and monkey fur, whereas Nessim sports bird of paradise plumes and chinchilla.

Draw back the velvet drapes, leave the city for the Midi dorée and smell Cologne Pour le Matin, Kurkdjian’s hypnotic child of sun and heat. This is a fragrance to celebrate the selfish animal joys of waking only for the pleasure of dozing again; the almost liquid relaxation of the body on Egyptian cotton sheets behind slatted blinds; but this time alone, cat-like, in love with sleep and torpor. Here the powdery quality is of lavender, iris, violets, thyme – veils of mauve and blue sun-dried Mediterranean flowers shimmering in the heat starred with specks of golden dust in the filtered bedroom light. You can almost hear the cicadas in the garden below the windows, and the whisper of the sea beyond. The sparkle and purity of orange blossom negates sex but emphasises escapism, a spiritual freedom as the body surrenders to heat, the white light of noon and clean dreamless sleep – a sleep like falling down a deep green well.

I have a feeling Aromafolio has still not yet exhausted this theme. Dors bien!

Image from culture.gouv.fr

The Blue Afternoon

One can admire and revere a perfume without having a desire to wear it and the last of the great Edwardian scents, L’Heure Bleue, is not to everyone’s taste. The great modern perfumer Francis Kurkdjian hates it, thinks it smells of burning rubber. Others, including myself, find the core of the scent more reminiscent of food – almond pastries, glutinous black cherry conserve and the clove of orange pomanders or pink Italian carnations. The heavy cloying food which piled all that creamy flesh onto the picture postcard beauties of the day: how they stride out these girls,charged up with calories, still lively on ancient newsreels of Ascot, the Gaiety Theatre, Longchamps and the Bois de Boulogne. A thoroughly emancipated walk heralding a new era, though still hampered by hobble skirts,
stays and no vote. L’Heure Bleue likewise falls between two worlds – more majestic and assertive than the swoon-away mauve boudoir ambience of Apres L’Ondee, Shem el Nessim and L’Origan; less mad than than the frenzied exaggerations and bizarrie of Narcisse Noir, Tabac Blond and the noisy novelty scents of Ragtime and the Jazz Age.

For a scent which ostensibly celebrates the hour of love, the twilit time of assignation when Paris as Nancy Mitford wrote looks as though “made of opaque blue glass”, L’Heure Bleue is a strangely robust perfume. It reminds me of Lillie Langtry whose exquisite face is from certain angles disconcertingly strong and powerful; her jaw square and bold; her body curiously muscular and masculine in that famous photograph of her marching down Sloane Street from the palace built for her by the Prince of Wales behind the Cadogan Hotel. Maybe this aspect of the perfume is what attracted the late Queen-Empress Elizabeth whose signature scent it is said to have been. It seems an odd choice for the ever smiling chiffony-powdery-petally Queen Mum, but more suitable for George V1’s steely consort and mentor, the Enriye of David and Wallis, the bombed-out consort who could look the East End (and no doubt Hitler, had needs be) in the face.

For at the heart of L’Heure Bleue’s grandeur is an intense melancholy and sense of tragedy which appealed so much to the neurotic literary genius Jean Rhys; and the lyrical perfumer Mona di Orio who confessed to being reduced to tears by the scent. I don’t know if Lady Duff Gordon and Mrs Astor took bottles aboard Titanic but the ship and the perfume both made their debut in 1912, and all too soon the best selling L’Heure Bleue became associated in the mind of its generation with the horror of the Great War, the collapse of old Europe, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919-20. It had caught the Zeitgeist to perfection and in a way, it transmuted into one of those superstitions that grew organically from the War: like “three on a match” and the ill-omened mixing of red and white hospital flowers.

Perfumes absorb the spirit of an age as well as reflect them: Chanel No 5 (1921) is a world reborn, glossy and adventurous and full of confident sexuality. L’Heure Bleue is death and decay, fading and lost love, a product of imperial luxury and complacence and the decadence inherent in that last flowering in the years before 1914 when the fruits were rotting from inside out. Within 5 years of the Romanov Tercentary Celebrations of 1913 the bodies of the Imperial family were ground into mud and ashes in a Siberian forest; the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian emperors gone into exile.
L’Heure Bleue rolled on, marked by its experiences and the wounds of its wearers: the only Guerlain scent that is indelibly dated; an unmistakable child of a century ago.

No wonder so many find it sad, even depressing: it is often smelled at funerals as it lulls mourners into a stupor of black poppies, spices, jasmin and those almost oppressively lush Bulgarian roses redolent of pepper and musk. It wraps you not in a veil, but a cloak of midnight blue velvet and musquash and sable. It stifles thought, it brings on the comforting warm darkness,it tempers the blues with the blue in almost homepathic principle. Hardly erotic, it is romantic, introverted,narcotic and sentimental. Reassuring and calming like the camouflage of mourning weeds, it muffles feeling and numbs thought like intravenous diazepam.

If you wear it, go easy or it will overcome you and your surroundings with an almost anaesthetic redolence with hints of camphor and menthol before the stained glass floral notes boil over like rose petal syrup – “…such sweet jams as God’s own Prophet eats in Paradise.” And to read as you wear it, William Boyd’s “The Blue Afternoon”, another masterpiece of doomed love.

The loveliness of Queen Alexandra

Queen Alexandra the Princess of Wales

I belong to that generation who in infancy heard a great deal about Alexandra of Denmark from people who still remembered her huge blue eyes, her bewitching smile and incomparable charm which miraculously project even today from cinema newsreels of 100 years ago. Some of us might go so far as to observe that Prince William’s looks are inherited as much from his paternal gt gt gt grandmother as from his mother. Alexandra rivals even the late Princess of Wales and Elizabeth the Queen Mother in the British royal popularity ratings on account of the conventions of her day setting her slightly apart from her subjects: there was no hugging, weeping, betting or gin and Dubonnet to encourage a woman-to-woman mateyness. Alexandra was ethereal, elusive, remote and revered; yet she projected such warmth, sympathy and grace coupled with flirtatious caprice and vibrant feminity as to make her adored though untouchable.

She dressed to please herself, pinning Orders and crown jewels on at random wherever they suited her best, regardless of protocol. Her fans and accessories were ordered from Carl Faberge; she was famously slim and diet-conscious in a very porky age. But how did the divine Alexandra smell? Alexandra Rose Day, founded in her old age commemorated her love of that flower and Floris supplied both her and her husband’s mistress, Mrs Keppel with their Red Rose. Long discontinued, this was a magnificently petally, velvety, deep soft rose which had as great an influence on rose scents in its time as Malle’s Une Rose in the 21st century. Ladies of Alexandra’s day were considered to be flower-like in their delicacy, their sensibility and fragility – they should be scented like blossoms, avoiding the coarse actressy voluptuousness of musk, civet and amber. A faint odour of flowers should emanate from their clothes, laid up in fresh lavender, rather from their bodies: colognes and toilet waters were still applied to handkerchiefs rather than to the skin or the hair, a practice still considered “fast” – a useful and telling word long since obsolete, alas.

Queen Alexandra would have been well aware of Grossmith’s best-selling perfumes, recently revived this century in their old splendour – Phul Nana, Shem El Nessim and Hasu no Hana. Her daughter-in-law (the future Queen Mary) wore Grossmith’s Bridal Bouquet to her own wedding – an occasion on which it was noted that Alexandra looked lovelier than the bride. Houbigant, Guerlain and Piver would have been familiar names to her. She lived long enough to smell Chanel No 5 and the baroque splendours of Caron even if she was too much of a Victorian to have worn them. But after the rose, the flower most traditionally associated with Alexandra is the violet – in the style of her day she pinned huge corsages of them to her clothes, carried bouquets of them in public and incorporated velvet and silk violets in her toques – the convention of royal ladies not obscuring their faces by wide brimmed head gear being already well established. Besides, as her mother-in-law Queen Victoria waspishly observed, “Darling Alix has the tiniest head I have ever seen” so that Alexandra was well aware of the flattering appearance of small, high turbans. She moved in a mist of Parma violet cologne, sheer silks and lace,the perfection of Edwardian womanhood.

Her rooms at Sandringham and Buckingham palace were crammed with roses, violets and azaleas. Faberge also recreated her favourite plants in crystal, gold and precious stones. Her favourite floral scents would have scented her gloves and rice powder for the face. I wonder whether this well-known fascination of the nation’s favourite old lady (she died at 80 in 1925) for these fragrances led to them for so long after her death to be considered old-fashioned and demode. And then quite suddenly, around ten years ago, the tide turned again and rose and violet perfumes came back, firstly via the niche perfumers and then amongst the commercial houses. One of the most opulent and most artful is Lipstick Rose, in the Malle collection – here Ralf Schwieger triumphantly updates the accord, introducing a violet-rose perfume with fruity aldehydic notes of immense vibrancy and panache, but still displaying a retro powderiness and floral poignancy that is the quintessence of Alexandra.

Image from Wikipedia