From Here To Eternity

Time, Death and Judgement 1900 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904 Presented by the artist 1900 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01693

Time, Death and Judgement 1900 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904 

 

Surely we are all haunted by time; its cruelties and mysteries. When, on her accession in 1558, Elizabeth Tudor rode into London she paused – mystified – before an elaborate tableau of infants and ancients, all wreathed & garlanded in tinsel and out of season flowers (for the month was November). “Madam”, explained an Alderman, “it is an Allegory of Time.” “Ah” said the Queen “And Time hath brought me hither”.

The scary thing is, as far as we know – and as we are too well aware – Father Time travels one way only, and that’s not a comforting direction. To conflate the words of Lewis Carroll and George III’s daughter Elizabeth, this “vile old gentleman … he won’t stand for beating!”. Each of us learned at his mother’s knee how terrified Elizabeth Tudor was of the bony old fellow – the stopped clocks, the banished mirrors, the elaborate wigs and maquillage. One of our favourite ‘heritage monarchs’ has become almost a national symbol of the vanity of struggling against Time and his remorseless ravages.

There was a rather creepy piece in the newspapers this month all about the latest techniques in making cut flowers last longer via a technique “which muffles the DNA responsible for producing ethylene, the gas that ripens fruit and rots petals”*. I was a bit amazed, really: we nowadays already get a sachet of that funny syrupy preservative bound, gratis, to the cellophane wrappers of most shop blooms. Either that or inherent breeding seems to semi-embalm them. I have mentioned before that, in any case, I mistrust flowers that last too long in water: three weeks – with chrysanthemums¤ – being my record. When I was small it was always said that flowers that kept beyond their natural span were a sign that a death was imminent in the family circle. Blossoms that had stood by a death-bed never perished.

So I am instinctively averse to this new idea, a process known apparently as “RNA interference”¤¤. Why should we want plants to last for (nearly) ever? What a horrible idea. Classicists will recall the Trojan prince, Anchises, for whom his lover Aphrodite secured the gift of eternal life. She forgot to ask for concomitant youth; so that eventually – centuries later – she had to solicit her divine confreres once again, this time to beg for the poor shrivelled chirping husk to be transformed into a grasshopper.

Everlasting flowers direct our thoughts to the notion of perpetual perfume. There’s nothing new in the idea. Three centuries B.C. Theophrastus (“The Father of Botany”) was writing that “what women require is perfume that will last”. (And Greek men did too, to be sure; but they were not supposed to be interested in such stuff). Another ancient, Apollonius, wrote a treatise on about where to source the finest perfume oils in the Mediterranean region¤¤¤ – “insist on the best!” As we – and he – would say.

But the development of a fragrance that lingers for ever on the skin still remains elusive – thank goodness. The beauty of a scent is – almost by definition – fleeting and fugitive.  A lovely scent must fade naturally like a flower or a piece of music: we try in vain to catch or detain its fleeting passage; its transience is an essential part of its appeal. Bitter-sweet. Should a “fine-dining” meal last for ever? Or the act of love? A poem? So why a beautiful scent?¤¤¤¤ How unnatural that would be. When I was a tot I used to lie in bed and my grandmother would come in to say goodnight and plant a kiss on the palm of each hand. Then she’d fold my fingers over it. “Hold tight! Don’t let those kisses escape!”

But the kisses always managed to fly away.

Perfumers – expert perfumers – will temper the concentration of their creations to reflect mood. Take the Frederic Malle masterpiece Angeliques Sous La Pluie: perfect example. This is an evocation of a March breeze blowing over newly-turned earth; a passing inhalation of early spring shoots and of an awakening garden. People love it but many complain that it does not last well. Jean-Claude Ellena, the creator of this heavenly scent, conceived it as the lightest of eaux de toilette precisely to enhance & reflect that vision of exquisite fragile elusiveness. Desiring it to be robustly tenacious is as paradoxical as nursing a butterfly into ripe old age.

How heartening to reflect that we are after all – just like the Book of Genesis and that famous hymn always said – “frail children of dust”. Professor Brian Cox was telling the tale yet again on tv last night: we are all of us born from the dust of dying stars. And in turn we duly return to the stars. Our ancestors knew this instinctively: we modern know-it-alls have to have it demonstrated by science.

As Marie Stuart’s father said, “it came with a lass; it will go with a lass”. Let’s end as we came in with the attempts of a British Queen to hold back Time. One of Victoria’s grand daughters remembered how the old lady smelled so deliciously of orange blossom imported from the Riviera. Others remembered her aura of immaculate cleanliness. When the Queen was young, she had her babies’ tiny arms, legs, hands and feet cast in marble to have about her, laid on cushions. A sweet idea in some ways; but now, with those nine children all long gone, there is something faintly macabre in the sight, rather reminiscent of the upsetting cadavers of Pompeii. Especially as, at the time, Victoria had found all those babies a sad and fretting trial. Like many a modern tourist, she concentrated more on capturing the image than relishing the actuality.

Those cold stone limbs remind me of a bottle of scent, romanticised and idealised but never used: lovingly preserved for an special occasion that never comes. Today – as regards perfume as with everything else – HAS to be the day! Sufficient to the day is the perfume thereof.

* The Times –  4/6/16

¤ “such serviceable flowers” – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

¤¤ all readers of Enid Blyton will jar at the connotations of the word “interference”. Very similar to “meddling”.

¤¤¤. Crocus oil from Rhodes; spikenard from Tarsus; frankincense at Pergamon…

¤¤¤¤ years ago I remember in Harrods seeing a party of nuns in fits and tucks as they examined a bottle of “Eternity”. ‘Cheap at the price!’ cried one.

Crinoline + Creed

The very nature of fashion dictates that what is ravishing to one generation seems hideous to another. Women’s styles of 100 years ago look exquisitely elegant in contemporary fashion plates and when cunningly recreated with the subtlest of 21st century slants for Downton Abbey. But informal photographs of 1912 are often horribly disillusioning, showing women as dishevelled bundles of clothing, topped by frizzled hair scorched + dried by curling tongs. Note too, the popularity of the sexy double chin and jowls for 18th century men and Edwardian ladies; and the egg-like facial look – no eyebrows or lashes – beneath those romantic fifteenth century wired butterfly veils. Anne of Cleves has been the butt of history’s clumsy wit for nearly 500 years as Henry VIII’s ugly wife, “the Flanders mare”; but if you bother to look at her portraits you will agree with novelist Margaret Campbell Barnes that to the modern eye she was by far and away the most attractive of the six queens with her heavy-lidded Dietrich eyes; and unlike the others she even manages a faint smile (unusual and risque in portraiture of her time).

Consider that sartorial turn-on of the 1850’s and 60’s, the cage or crinoline – a vast bell-like construction of hoops of whalebone and steel which stretched out the skirts to outlandish dimensions thus incidentally keeping ‘Punch’ and all the satirical magazines in material for a decade. The crinoline had its origins in the Elizabethan farthingale, the intention of which in its native prudish Spain was to conceal pregnancy, and keep men at a distance simply by the egregious width of one’s dress. In its Victorian version it became more explicitly erotic: it drew attention to the tiny tight-laced waist (this was the time before the triumph of the bosom as erogenous zone); it made the arms look slenderer and the hands more fragile in comparison; and the hoops swayed and dipped in an alluring way as the wearer walked or danced, revealing (ideally) dainty neat feet + ankles. Everything then but the breadth of your skirt and the width of your eyes must needs be in miniature. A tiny fragile woman, gasping for air due to the restrictions of her stays, and imprisoned in her clothes: this was the erotic ideal of our great great grandfathers. Weird, you might think…but not so far in concept from today’s highest heels and the latest trends in Spandex.

But what made the crinoline so controversial, and led Queen Victoria to initially ban its wearing at Court, was that wearing it did away for the need to wear the old-fashioned plethora of petticoats and this was thought highly indecent. And what’s more it could be dangerously unstable: crinolines blew up in the wind, got caught on carriage wheels and stuck in doorways; and tipped up at an alarmingly revealing angle if you sat down without due manipulation. This led to the sudden popularity in the wearing of knickers, previously used only by actresses and harlots, the reasoning being that no decent woman would ever come near to revealing her nether regions in public and so had no need of panties: the risky crinoline changed this. Though not apparently in France where one of the Empress Eugenie’s dames d’honneur tripped on her hoops, fell and gave the visiting King of Savoy an unexpected eyeful.

Of course the crinoline predates the first milestones of modern perfumery by a good twenty years, but we can still catch a whiff of the scents of the period in three surviving Creed fragrances. Fabric patterns were exceedingly dramatic to emphasise the dimensions of the skirts: broad bold stripes, flouncing and heavy trimmings were de rigueur. Colours of the period were loud, thanks to the gaudy new aniline dyes: part of the huge chemical advances that would soon transform perfumes. So emerald, canary yellow, electric blue and magenta were well balanced by the heavy heady scent of Bulgarian rose, jasmine, musk and ambergris that are redolent in what we now know as Creed‘s Fantasia des Fleurs, Fleurs de Bulgarie and Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie. Obviously all three have been trimmed, tailored and refined over 150 years, but what we smell today gives some idea of those heady blends of flower and animal oils that would have been dabbed on the handkerchiefs only of modest women; while the more daring of the new knicker-wearers may have touched their hair and wrists with a perfume-stopper. Eugenie, incidentally, was the patroness not only of Creed but also of Charles Worth, the boy from Lincoln who went to Paris and as Collins Dictionary says, “founded Parisian haute couture”.
Together, he and the Empress were responsible for the launching the crinoline craze.

These are big scents for big clothes: to be worn with velvet, bombazine, satin, furs, veils and never without gloves and hats outside the home. Fans, muffs and bouquets were all essential accessories. Smelling these perfumes in context helps to make much more sense of these extravagant, delicious but strange creations. It brings them to life on their own terms. Not so good maybe worn with t-shirts and jeans; and not at all, as the ignorant have it, “old ladies’ smells”, but once paraded by Queens, Empresses and courtesans at the apogee of their beauty and style: Eugenie, Elisabeth, Cora Pearl, La Paiva – the female fashion leaders of Europe.
Perfumes to dress up for and live up to.
Now there’s a challenge for a Diamond Jubilee year!

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Say It With Flowers

In this Diamond Jubilee year of the second Elizabeth (of whose perfume tastes we know little) let’s remember her great royal namesake who died after a reign of 45 years on March 24 1603. It is well attested that Elizabeth Tudor had a particularly acute sense of smell, and an especial detestation of the then fashionable trick of treating soft leather with lavender oil: this brought on the violent nervous headaches to which the Queen was prone. We have the amusing tale of her ordering some courtier out of her presence on account of his perfumed cape only to have him best her (a rare event) with his riposte “Tush, Madam, tis my boots that stink!”

And the devastating anecdote of the poor man who broke wind when bowing to his sovereign and hid his mortification in self-imposed exile for seven years. When finally he re-appeared at Court Elizabeth was at her most charming,gracious and hospitable before remarking over her shoulder as she swept out, “We hath quite forgot the fart…”

The Virgin Queen bathed more often than was considered safe for her health; about once a month. Her near-fatal smallpox of smallpox in 1562 was attributed to this dangerous indulgence. Elizabeth’s daily hygiene routine would have consisted of wipings down with cloths soaked in rosewater, colognes and spirits. Spring water was also imported from spas for her use, London sources being far too filthy to use. To sweeten the breath it was then logically but fatally thought well to swill the mouth with vinegar, honey and sugar. Vain of the whiteness of her skin and her long delicate fingers the Queen cut a far more attractive figure however than her successor James 1st whose hands, perennially unwashed, were said be as soft as black silk.

For propaganda purposes Elizabeth sat for a succession of portraits which defined her popular image according to strict government guidelines, and which became more symbolically complex as they grew increasingly less realistic. The Rainbow Portrait was painted when the Queen was sixty seven but there is no acknowledgement of this in the painting: she is fantastic in appearance, literally ageless. She holds the eponymous Rainbow in her left hand – we are tactfully reminded that without the Sun (Elizabeth herself) the Rainbow cannot exist – and we think of Iris, the goddess who trailed her multi-coloured cloak across the sky and gave her name to the exquisite flowers which even in Tudor times played such a key role in perfumery: orris powder, from the dried and pulverised iris roots, was used to scent clothing, hair, closets, chests and linens.

The Rainbow portrait is so crammed with symbols that a small book might be written on its various possible meanings; the point is that in an age of illiteracy these now enigmatic emblems would have been immediately understood and appreciated by everyone who saw the painting itself, and the innumerable cheap prints and copies which took the Queen’s image to the masses.

Let’s take only one detail: the plants embroidered on the royal bodice. Elizabeth is personified as the virgin goddess Astraea who dwelled on Earth in the Golden Age when the world was one vast (and surely English) flower meadow.
Furthermore, each plant has a specific meaning:

The Arum – for ardour (and devotion to duty)

The Cowslip – for grace and youth (the Queen’s, naturally)

The Honeysuckle – for fidelity and the bonds of love (between the Queen and her subjects)

The Pansies – for her wise thoughts

The Acorn – for immortality, and for the English oak which built the ships that destroyed the Armada and founded the Elizabethan empire

The Rose – the Tudor badge and the emblem of the Virgin

The Carnation – a woman’s love (for her people)

The Violet – faithfulness

This rich, compact but elaborate shorthand may suggest to you a new approach to assessing a perfume, reflecting on the ingredients and their arcane significance; what may still be concealed from us is the alchemical relevance of the scents of the flowers and their medicinal properties. Construct your own iconic perfumed image: per perfuma ad astra!

Image from Wikimedia commons