Eugenie, Eugenie…

news_story_detail-DOSSIER  EUGENIA DE MONTIJO

Do you find the Empress Eugenie a sympathetic character? I never know quite what to make of her; I find her hard to get close to. Her numerous portraits are theatrical and glamorous to a degree, especially the glorious set pieces by Winterhalter with their sensual and tactile treatment of his sitter’s luxurious garments and draperies. Romantic, too, are the circumstances of Eugenie’s long life: the exotically mixed and mysterious ancestry; her Scottish blood; her wooing by Napoleon III – “the only way to my bed is through a well-lit chapel”; her role in creating the concept of haute couture and making Paris the fashion centre of the world. And then there are the frivolous but delicious legacies left by Eugenie to the world: a mauve passion flower; an amethyst tiara in the Louvre: a rakish style of hat, re-introduced to fashion by Garbo and even more popular the second time around. Above all, the crinoline is forever associated with her and with her pet designer Worth – the nice boy from Lincolnshire who spoke with a strong Northern accent in a “low deep voice” and was unable to draw faces or limbs: he cut them out from photos and lithographs and stuck them on to his sumptuous designs.

Then, too, Eugenie was fabulously lovely: or so Worth and Winterhalter made her. She was slim and of middling height ( 5’5″) with cascades of red gold hair put up in chignons and ringlets. She had violet eyes, perfect skin and the most extraordinary eyebrows which she made her signature. You can recognise her in any likeness by these quizzically raised butterfly brows which lift like antennae from the outer corner of the eye. They give her a somewhat affected look, very distinctive. The Empress kept them pencilled dramatically black to contrast with the dazzling brilliance of her complexion. Her teeth were good: like many of her Imperial contemporaries she had a state-of-the-art American dentist, Mr Thomas Evans, who was destined to save more than the Empress’s teeth when the Second Empire collapsed in 1870. He whisked her into a cab and off to a 50 year exile in England before the Paris mob could subject her to the fate of Marie Antoinette: a circumstance of which she had always a superstitious dread.

We think of Eugenie when we use her preferred Roger & Gallet soap, and Guerlain’s blissful Eau Imperiale. The latter is supposed to have been commissioned for her, but then her unattractive husband (“a very awkward shape”) liked it so well that he made off with it for his own use ( as Samuel Pepys often did with his wife’s accessories). Above all Eugenie’s aura can still be smelled in Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie, for which Creed devised the original formula just as the Second Empire collapsed. If ever there was a scent to be smelled against a background of ermine, sable, violet velvet and pink silk this is the one. Jasmin is soft but penetrating, headily warm, all-embracing; somnolent and sleepily erotic, well-laced with iris and aphrodisiac vanilla. Maybe the scent is in fact too sexy for the eponymous wearer; or perhaps it is ironically piquant that a woman said to be so prudish and uninterested in sex should apparently have sprinkled such a slow-burning scorcher about her person.

Whether Creed kept up with the ex-Empress in her retirement at Farnborough is unknown. Mabell Airlie who visited the 77 year old Eugenie at home in 1902 was horrified at “the way …she had let herself go – like any old French peasant woman”. The famous brows, now white, were clumsily and only partially blacked in and the Empress’s once formidable sense of decorum seems to have slipped: ” There were some other English guests at tea, but when the Empress told – in English – an impossibly indelicate story about two swans they were so shocked that they rose hastily and took their leave”. In photographs of this period and later Eugenie is appallingly changed and aged, even frightening, and always in the same huge and terrible hat: the sort of old lady who scares little children.

By the age of 53 she had lost her crown, her sister, husband and only child, the Prince Imperial. Her son fell in the Zulu Wars and his body was brought home to be buried at Windsor. When I went to pay my respects I found his tomb in the centre of the St George’s Chapel souvenir shop: tourists wrote their post cards on his chest. But despite Eugenie’s tragic circumstances she didn’t lack for admirers: Queen Victoria (“ma chere soeur”) always adored her, with the passion of a homely person for a beauty. Even in her 70’s Eugenie attracted a passionate suitor in the suffragette and composer Ethel Smyth who wrote that the Empress was more brilliantly lovely than ever. It was to Ethel that Eugenie once revealed her snow white naked leg,”in extenso”, a curious episode which Miss Smyth vividly described in a letter to the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury.* Meanwhile Eugenie herself nurtured a sort of schoolgirl crush on the aged and (in this case) baffled Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, begging in vain for a meeting.

Eugenie lived to be 94 and died in Madrid in 1920, while on a visit to her native Spain. I find her elusive and I suspect her biographers do likewise. No life of her seems really to capture the woman. Perhaps this was part of her charm to contemporaries; maybe too she was a mystery to herself, one of those strange sphinxes without a secret. People who knew her said she was highly emotional, prone to fuss and easily bored; nervous and a martyr to migraine. But she was a survivor – as is her perfume. Come and smell it chez nous.

*For the whole bizarre story see the incomparably marvellous biography “As Good As God, As Clever As The Devil: the impossible life of Mary Benson” by Rodney Bolt, Atlantic Books 2011.

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.