Lavender’s Blue

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Lavender is one of the first benevolent plants we meet as tiny children. It’s non-poisonous, tough, grows more or less like a weed and smells delicious. Most gardens and patios have a bush somewhere. Lavender is one of the relatively floral smells we all know from infancy. It thrives on dry poor soil and is cheap, or used to be. This year however it was going for £10 a pot at the local hardware store on Mothering Sunday which I thought a bit saucy. You can dry it and make sachets or pot pourris to scent the laundry and deter the moth, at least up to a point. I lost some of my faith in that last quality when a favourite cardigan embalmed in lavender was completely devoured by moths, the worst damage being in the region of the pockets which I’d packed with the stuff.

I love lavender and resent the way it is too much associated with faded maiden ladies, an image perpetuated even in the 21st century by the eponymous Maggie Smith/ Judi Dench movie. Miss Marple uses lavender water for high days and holidays; and then there’s that maudlin Gracie Fields song about the Little Old Lady Passing By – “in your lavender and lace”. It’s an English tic, this: the French, Italian and Dutch see lavender as virile and energising, clean and uplifting, healing and calming. They take the aromatherapeutic view, I suppose inherited from the old Romans who loved the stuff and gave it its name, deriving from “lavare” – to wash. They cleansed their bodies with the fragrant healing oil which is yielded by every part of this ancient plant, and laid up their heavy woollen togas in the dried flowers. It was probably Roman colonists who brought the herb to Britain, two thousand years ago.

I grow lavender: the common or garden type, and that fancy variety which looks like lilac bumble bees. And I wear it. My old favourite was Jean Patou’s long discontinued Moment Supreme: purple prose in perfume! Vast amounts of lavender suspended in sweet vanilla and tonka like a medieval flan for an Emperor’s feast. At Les Senteurs we have three especial crackers: Lorenzo Villoresi’s dark, intense, austerely beautiful Wild Lavender which smells like great bunches freshly culled from a wet garden. Caron’s immortal Pour Un Homme, one of France’s perennial bestsellers since 1934, blends lavender oils with a dash of rose absolue and a lingering melting base of tonka and vanilla. It is as soft and relaxed as a lilac cashmere sweater: although it earned its place in perfume history as the first fragrance specifically branded for men, it also works deliciously on a woman’s skin. The jury is out as to whether lavender can be sexy – and I think it is! – but it is certainly (as Tynan wrote of Dietrich) without gender. I rest my case.

And then there’s Andy Tauer’s Reverie Au Jardin.pa This is my current summer favourite, my passion. Andy uses Alpine lavender grown high on the slopes which imbues it with a wonderfully cool, slightly mentholated tang – “cool as a mountain stream”. The dry woody fragrance of lavender is accentuated and exoticised with orris, frankincense and cedar; the sweetness increased with rose and vanilla. There is a glorious generous freshness and a slight juicy fruitiness withal; Reverie Au Jardin is as far as you can get from drawer liners and the old Bazaar & Rummage image. It’s lush, expansive, intricate and as beautiful as a Mediterranean dawn.
Use lavishly.

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Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No 7 – “V for Victory!”

Jennie Jerome

One of Creed‘s best-selling millesime fragrances at LES SENTEURS is Tabarome, a modern interpretation of the dark cigar-smokey cologne once reputedly worn by Winston Churchill. Having freshly spruced up with Tabarome’s warm woods, ginger and citrus then sally forth to pay an additional homage to the Churchill family. Not two minutes away, bang opposite the Odeon on the Edgware Road, is the vast building which was once the London home of Winston Churchill’s parents, Lord Randolph and Lady Jennie. (Think of the stairs! think of the servants!) She, of course, was American, a fact that her son was inordinately proud of: he inherited much of his charm, cordiality and joie de vivre from her transatlantic genes. Her astonishing beauty however passed him by. He was a bullish redhead while Miss Jennie Jerome had the type of melting dark looks which can still be appreciated today: portraits of her contemporaries are often a sad disappointment but Jennie’s abundant dark curls, full mouth and great soulful eyes remain mesmerising. Before the arrival of the cinema, professional beauties were the great stars of late Victorian London with their latest photographs in shop windows bringing the traffic to a halt in Oxford Street. Lady. Churchill was one of many lovelies of whom it was said that onlookers scrambled to stand on chairs, carriage seats and Park benches to catch a glimpse of in the flesh. Three times married and reputedly the mistress of Edward VII Jennie died as the result of a freakish accident involving new high heels hastily put on and a consequent fall downstairs. Put to bed, she mistook a fatal haemorrhage for a leaking hot water bottle.

How fitting that the Victory Services Club should now be practically next door to Sir Winston’s childhood home, occupying Connaught House in Seymour Street. Founded in 1907 to look after Boer War veterans, the Club moved to Marble Arch from Holborn in the late 1940’s. Churchill’s photo portrait hangs in the foyer of the concern in which he took a great personal interest. Nowadays the Club offers accommodation, restaurants and entertainment to servicemen, their families and connections. I heard about it from a friend who is a most enthusiastic member: her late father served in the RAF and she recommends the Club for unbeatable comfort, convenience and value right in the heart of London. And so handy for a perfume spree. At LES SENTEURS we used to sell Jean Patou’s L’Heure Attendue, created in 1944 to celebrate the Liberation of France. Many Churchill ladies since are said to have admired and worn it; I remember commenting on this to a German visitor to the shop who replied, “In that case, give me a bottle directly!” That famed Churchill charm you see: the spell remains potent.

Popcorn Venus

openlibrary

We were sat listening to the London rain the other afternoon, sipping our Quietly Camomile and really beginning to feel a bit doleful, when our dear Michel blew in from Paris and bucked us all up. Michel’s been in the business for years and years; he’s like a debonair Belgian Leslie Howard and brings us all the news and novelties from Etat Libre d’Orange. This time in his valise he had a real cracker which we all adored – which means that many of you will, too. It’s enticingly named La Fin du Monde – The End of The World – which was how we’d all felt before smelling it.
Once the genie was out of the bottle and on our skin we were on top of the world.

Now the active note is – hang on! – popcorn. Delicious, warm, sweet dry popcorn blended with gunpowder, sesame and cumin, orris, styrax, vetiver… Heavens! It smelled good: embraceable, soft, wraparound comfort and, yes, glamorous too. On me the base ( hours + hours later) had some of the deep powdery darkness of a vintage Caron or Patou scent. We each wore it home that evening and it was on all our lips – and some skins, even after a bath – the next morning. You will judge for yourselves: La Fin du Monde should be on our shelves by the end of October so watch this space for updates.

Image: Openlibrary.org

DAFFS

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The daffodils have been late in coming this year. In one of those strange warm non-winters earlier this century I noted on my calendar that they were in full blow in the London parks on February 9th, which makes them now two months behind. But in the supermarkets and flower stalls they’re freely obtainable, wonderfully cheap and you can turn your home into a glowing golden glade with minimum outlay. At Easter I filled a room with bowls of hyacinths, narcissi and six vases of daffs, spending no more than on a moderate bottle of wine. The cream and tangerine narcissi smelled as pungent and heady as tuberoses, while the daffodils sprinkled motes of pollen in the sunbeams which lit up every shade of yellow in those petals like silky waxed paper.

Daffodils are such accommodating plants – cheap and easy to grow, long lasting when cut – that they are often underrated and taken for granted. Over the centuries they have been bred and developed from a modest wild flower to showy flaunting beauties. Pilgrims to Wordsworth’s lakeside daffodils are often taken aback by their delicacy, miniatures in beige or sepia rather than the giant blooms of the horticulturists in every colour of sunshine and sunset, fire and flame, pink grapefruit, raspberry and orange. Even my Tesco’s three dozen, opening slowly in a sunny cold room, attained a remarkable size. They were rightly marvelled at as though,with their frilled trumpets, weird subtle fragrance and slender jade leaves they might have been sulphurous canary cattleya orchids against a sky as blue as that of Brazil.
Hence the acuteness of Elizabeth Bowen’s short story “Daffodils” which delicately probes this ambiguity in a tale of a school mistress’s past.

The scent is wonderful, though easily missed and not a little strange. You have to be looking out for it; like that of many flowers it is perhaps not quite what you imagined. Daffodils smell dry and green and slightly peppery; a trifle rough and lightly feral – gorged with pungent raw spring pollen. They smell of growing and pulsating life, the urgent uncontrolled resurrection of the spring; of rubber gloves and gas and crisp chilled white wine. For many of us this is the first garden fragrance of the year, especially if you can no longer get down on your knees to smell the honeyed snowdrops and musky, fleshy, powdery violets. It’s a colder, fresher, more bracing scent than the swooning jasmine odour of vibernum, or the piercing sweetness of hyacinths which for some people is unpleasantly redolent of cat world – a touch of domestic civet in the herbaceous border.

Daffodil is only occasionally used as a note in perfume, sometimes peeping from older twentieth century creations. I think the flower’s familiarity works against it psychologically; it seems lacking in exoticism though rich in scent. Like the blossoms of potatoes, beans both broad and runner, wallflowers, gorse, pansies and petunias the daffodils are maybe perceived as too humble to mingle with ambergris, ylang ylang and gardenia in a crystal flacon or sprayed on ivory shoulders. For perfumers who have dared to experiment it has yet yielded effective results. Bronnley once made a delicious cologne, perfect for splashing around after a bath, sweet and naïve and refreshing. Daltroff used daffodil to add a sly faux-innocence to the top notes of Narcisse Noir, and it turns up in Jean Patou’s devastating Adieu Sagesse of 1925.

One of the dozen corkers later marketed by Patou as “Ma Collection” Adieu Sagesse (and what a name!) is a worthy sister of such weird masterpieces as Chaldee, Colonie and Moment Supreme. It was coming to the end of its long story when I knew it, one of its fans being Prime Minister’s wife and poet, Lady Mary Wilson. The Wilsons owned a house in the Scilly Islands and no doubt the scent of the warm daffodil air of the isles chimed with Lady Wilson’s favourite perfume. “Is she fragrant?” as a contemporary High Court judge famously asked of quite another political spouse of that era. This was a time when Prime Minister’s wives often seemed vague and remote; the charming, enigmatic and discreet Baroness perhaps reveals as much about herself in this lost musky floral as she does in her poems.