Treasures: Lost and Found

Faberge is back in the news; once again there’s been a re-division of the limited spoils via the world’s salerooms and auctions. And – did you see? –  a spectacular dental plate of gold and platinum has turned up in a grave near St Petersburg? Only some 40 of the Imperial Easter Eggs survive; I found my old Catalogue of the huge 1977 London Faberge exhibition the other day and was surprised to tot up how many I have seen over the years. The Eggs were less well-known when I was young. I think it was the Nicholas and Alexandra craze of 40 years ago that first put the word about; and then when Bing Crosby died on a Spanish golf course it came out that he was a great collector. I could write my own I Spy book of Faberge (Big Chief I-Spy, Wigwam-by-the-Water, remember?). I get 40 points for seeing the old St Petersburg shop – now, needless to say, a Macdonalds; and I’ve seen the almost absurdly symbolic but chillingly uncanny Twilight Egg.

The Twilight Egg for the twilight of the gods! It makes you shiver. As Russia began her fatal participation in the Great War Carl Faberge continued to supply his Easter trophies to the Imperial ladies. In a rather mad kind of way, and with no dimunition of expense, they were adapted to the austere spirit of the time: the Birchwood Egg, the  Red Cross Egg and the sinister polished steel of the Munitions Egg – the bomb-like Easter kiss of 1916. The Twilight Egg never reached the Empress: by then the Revolution had broken out and the Imperial Family were under house arrest at Tsarskoye Selo. What curious premonitions inspired this toy of lapis lazuli, diamonds and moonstones? What thoughts of Rasputin’s last prophecy before he went under the ice, his fearful vision of the end of the Romanovs and Russia drowning in blood? The photograph of his battered murdered face was the first thing the Tsarina Alexandra saw when she awoke: it hung at the foot of her bed. The Empress was accustomed to shower the Faberge workshop with ideas and suggestions; deeply pious though obsessed with the occult, numerology and portents Alexandra’s agitations and fears are captured in this shell of midnight blue. All Faberge’s Eggs contained within a “Surprise” – an ingenious precious novelty, as in a superior cracker. The Suprise is lost from the Twilight; the Surprise was to be the slaughter house at Ekaterinburg.

For 30 years Faberge solved the gift problem for the royal families of Russia and of England. A branch of the store opened in London; Edward VII and Queen Alexandra commissioned jewel portraits of their animals and plants at Sandringham. One of the most fascinating pieces in the Royal Collection is an midnight blue enamel cigarette case inlaid with a great diamond serpent biting its own tail, the symbol of unbroken love. Edward VII’s mistress, Alice Keppel, commissioned it for her chain-smoking bronchitic royal lover; when he died Queen Alexandra offered it to Alice as a keepsake. Twenty years later, Queen Mary received it back from Mrs Keppel whose great grand daughter is now married to the Prince of Wales. Another touch of the Twilight Egg here; eerie Faberge magic.

So when I saw the white and gold snake caskets of Kilian’s Garden of Good and Evil collection I thought of all these back stories and I was captivated. The luxurious Kilian ethos has enticing echoes of Faberge; one of his motifs is the key, that uber-symbol of sex and secrecy, the locking and disclosure of the mysteries of this and other worlds. Kilian’s tiny keys to his seductively gleaming lacquer boxes (the boxes of a new Pandora) remind us of the velvet shells that protected the Tsar’s eggs; the key that Alice finds on a glass table to open Wonderland; and of the key to Marlene’s eternal enigma. The surname, Dietrich, means in German a skeleton key in German – the device against which no lock is proof.

Kilian‘s “Straight To Heaven” – where St Peter waits with the golden Keys of the Kingdom and St Zita finds those you have mislaid – is a lyrical shimmering streak of flaming rum and psychotropic nutmeg which fires you up like a rocket, reminding me of those neo-Gilray cartoons of 1997 depicting Diana and Mother Theresa whizzing like shooting stars to Paradise. Kilian loves the scent and symbolism of soft fruits – apricots (female beauty), peach and especially plum (perpetual youth) which appears – candied and crystallised and darkly oozing in Liaisons Dangereuses and In The City of Sin. The fruits of the Garden of Eden: my English teacher, when holding forth on Paradise Lost always held that Eve was more likely betrayed less by an apple than by a peach  – the key note of Kilian’s cool green celadon  “Flower of Immortality” –  the Chinese emblem of eternal life and fidelity. For in tandem with these high ideals the sweet golden flesh of the fruit, its intoxicating juices and delicious odours are deeply sensual and carnal: an irresistible invitation to voluptuous reverie and amorous intercourse, the exchange of a spiritual heaven for a more robustly physical one. “Here’s the key to my heart/ Don’t lose it/ Use it” as Alice Faye used to sing.

I haven’t been so captivated by a perfume range for a long time as I am by the smooth and silky Kilian line. Polished, vivid and easy to wear the fragrances are also mysterious and adventurous. Fewer in number than the Imperial Eggs, they are the products of a similar genius and devotion to artistic luxury, perfection for its own sake. Every one a gem and like Faberge’s treasures, they are destined to delight future generations beyond our own. But judge for yourselves: why not pop round?

A Gentle Glow

Camille Clifford

There’s been more sales of these endless pairs of Queen Victoria’s knickers lately. Can her dimensions really have been so vast, even grotesque? From her underclothes her bust has been reckoned in old age at 66″ inches which means it was considerably greater than her height. Her waist comes in at 50″; I don’t know whether this is with the drawstring of her panties drawn tight or left slack. Her own doctor wrote that she was not a pretty sight undressed – barrel-like – but it seems a terrible thing, even now, to parade all this to her shame in tabloids and on websites. However it must be said that Victoria was more robust about the human form and its functions than is popularly thought, writing admiringly as a young woman of the magnificence of Albert in his cashmere breeches “with nothing underneath”. And the strangest thing is, that her youngest daughter Beatrice who prepared her mother’s journals for posthumous publication after the most stringent bowdlerisation let this particular passage stand.

Of course, the dimensions of these voluminous underclothes of the past had a secondary purpose. Up until the 1920’s any decent woman of any class was rigidly corseted in stays. These were tightly laced over chemises cut very generously to protect the skin from chafing by buckram and whalebone, and also to soak up the abundant perspiration concomitant on all this restriction and compression of the flesh. My Victorian grandmother and her contemporaries used to hold forth on the unending efforts of their youth to keep clean: the home-made borax deodorants, the sewn-in underarm sweat pads, the dust braid tacked on to skirt hems, the endless brushing and laundering of petticoats. Anyone wishing for a very full and frank evocation of domestic middle class hygiene in the 1890’s should study the Lizzie Borden murder case: the fly -blown mutton soup served up five days running in a Fall River heat wave; the unmentionables soaking in buckets in the scullery.

In my department store days I used to work with a little lady who kept her black uniform in her locker and change into her own clothes to go home. She said that uniform had never been washed in over 20 years – “it doesn’t require it”. In her wonderful novel “The Women In Black” Madeleine St John pin points the quintessential store sartorial smell of talcum powder and sweat; to which I would add the odour of old  perfume embedded in repetitively dry-cleaned fabric. None of this is exactly unpleasant: fresh sweat in itself is not offensive, the problems set in as it ages and reacts with bacteria. And even that niff has its fans: we all know the story of Napoleon’s letter to Josephine to the effect that he is starting home from Italy and inviting her not to wash. Which must have been a peculiar ordeal for Josephine, one of the cleanest individuals in history, always in the bath, washing her hair (a new fashion) and changing her lingerie four times daily.

More of us that might care to admit are aroused by apparently offensive smells. A fascinating note in the Telegraph last month revealed that my favourite hawthorn blossom emits the scent of sex and secretes triethylamine besides, a chemical also produced by decaying human corpses. For millenia, perfumers used matter from the digestive and reproductive systems of animals to add tenacity and punch to their products. And this summer there is a chic new fad of not washing overmuch, of cultivating a piquant tang of bouquet de corsage; maybe to show in this time of recession and fear that one is with the people, that “we’re all in this together” as someone said. No time to bathe, no time to launder: there’s a big job to do, though no one is sure quite what it might be. It’s reminiscent of French duchesses during the Revolution having greasy red caps of Liberty incorporated into their powdered coiffures, and perhaps this summer’s damp coolth has given the bon-ton the courage to join this grubby trend. It’s certainly delightfully apparent on the light luncheon and dinner-dance circuit.

But if you haven’t quite the nerve to go out without a preliminary dab wash and application of Sure you can fake it much more happily with perfume on immaculately clean skin. There are fresh crisp scents straight out the shower scents, quite devoid of erotic appeal; and then there are the sexy voluptuous fragrances with just a hint of smuts, of unbuttoned come-hither negligence. Perfumes that smell within half an hour or so as though you’ve worn them all day while living life to the full. Rich dark orientals that have moistened under a hot sun; petal-dropping waxy white florals with a musky worm i’ the bud; earthy chypres with a hint of luscious fruit on the edge of rot. Charogne by Etat Libre d’Orange takes this idea to the limit; Editions des Parfums Musc Ravageur is a legend of the genre. But do try also Kilian‘s best-sellers Good Girl Gone Bad – the clue’s in the title – and In The City of Sin. Good Girl is a stupendous white bouquet of jasmine, osmanthus, tuberose and narcissus which suddenly plunges into a honey trap of woody amber. City of Sin has a delicate creamy spiciness that reminds me of those large and now rare white pinks, a scent that recently wafted from a garden, stopped me dead in my tracks in the lane. Recently our dear friend the perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek gave a masterclass in up-to-the-minute ingredients at Les Senteurs and put a name to so many of the smells we recognise but cannot always identify. It was the amber variant, tresamber, which hit the nail for me. I seem to detect its magic in both of these Kilian show-stoppers. It’s right down there at the sultry base beneath the warm, soft slightly fruity odour which I visualise as the colour of the Duchess of Malfi’s apricots (the fruits of City of Sin, mixed with rose and plum). A dusky gold, ripened in sun and humus on the walls of a stable. Sweetish, faintly fleshy, definitely animalic, disturbing in the best sense and very very sexy.