Paradise Regained

The Butterfly that Stamped - Rudyard Kipling

When we were studying Paradise Lost for English A Level, I remember Mr Edwards expounding on the nature of the fruit that ruined Eve. The idea of it being an apple was all wrong, he thought. The fatal fruit should have been a luscious peach, a satin-skinned nectarine or a furry-velvet apricot – soft, tactile, fragrant; dropping sweet perfumed nectar, and of a rosy golden colour, blushing at the cosmic shame of the Fall. It’s not just that most of us today have the image of an apple as a hard green waxed ball sat in the supermarket: the early Church fathers suspected the intrinsic perversity of apples and this is why the fruit was stigmatised as the undoing of Eve and Adam. Apples grow harder as they mature, unlike respectable soft fruit; they are indecently slow to decay, defying the Divine Law. To put the tin hat on it, the Latin name for an apple is the same as that for evil. (“Malo I would rather be/ Malo in an apple tree/ Malo is a wicked man/ Malo in adversity” – remember?).

I recalled all this when reading The Song of Solomon, preparing a talk on perfume in the Ancient World. Here is a wonderful meditation of the sensual hypnosis of perfume: let the poetry stupefy you with scent. Once again, the 1907 “Helps To The Study of the Bible” suggests that we might more accurately read “apricot” for apple; the trouble (and joy) of all these ancient texts is that repeated translation may confuse such a precise science as modern botany. What the Old Testament calls a rose may have been what we know as a lily, a crocus or a narcissus. The ‘lilies of the field’ were probably the same scarlet anenomes that I saw one February bursting from the bare and snowy hills above Jericho.

But let each judge for himself as to the odour of his loved one:

” …Thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine; and the smell of thy nose like apples…who is it that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant? A garden enclosed is my sister…thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire* with spikenard. Spikenard and saffron; calamus¤ and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense ; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices…”

And then we read of the skin oozing, dripping with impossibly delicious and expensive perfumes; limbs slathered in precious oils:

“I rose up to open to my Beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock”.

Spikenard is an evocative word; it now usually refers to an extract of a root of the valerian family but, once again, the ancients may have known it as another fragrance entirely. We meet it also in the New Testament brought – “very precious” – in an alabaster box for the anointing of Christ. I have smelled it only once, I think, and it was not at all as I had expected being not creamy, spicy and sweet but dark, earthy rebarbative. In this it reminds me of the pink lotus absolute that Elizabeth Moores uses today in her perfume Anubis; a scent which leads us back into the fragrance world of 4,000 years ago.

For here is a phenonemon that links us directly with our ancestors; the sense of smell and the timeless palette of perfumers’ oils. Whereas air pollution, chemicals, saturation of odours and an increasing remoteness from the natural world may imply that we experience smells differently from our forebears, the traditional natural constituents of perfume remain largely the same. Perfumers of 2014 AD use juniper, hyssop, artemisia, iris, mint, coriander, anise and galbanum just as their predecessors did in 2014 BC. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and despite the confusion of nomenclature we still enjoy the spices, resins, incense and perfumed woods known to the Israelites, Greeks and Egyptians when Rome was still unknown.

* thought to be an oil of lemon grass

¤ the heady fragrance of henna flowers

Advertisements

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?