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?

Mr Putin’s Pleasure

We have evoked scents of Imperial Russia before in these pages, but the recent triumph of Vladimir Putin at the polls has awakened memories of the Russia I knew in the 1970’s when I travelled on different occasions to Moscow, Leningrad, the Crimea and the outer wastes of Siberia across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal. Every country has its own definitive smell: can anyone define the smell of England? Being a native I am maddeningly immune to it, as one so often is to one’s signature scent. But once abroad, the indigenous smells bombard me like a Battle of the Flowers. Syria was a fog of intense night-flowering jasmine and aromatic woodsmoke, undercut with diesel fumes and wafts of Chanel 19 exuded by the cafe boss at the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers. Egypt in June was burning dust, sweet bursting fruits and dried animal dung. Tunisia was the sickly sweet, slightly headachey scent of oleanders, datura lilies and a curious but ubiquitous floral disinfectant. Russia… ah, Russia was then very potent; and as I have not returned in 30 years I should be greatly intrigued to know whether the ambience has changed with the fall of Communism. Let us know, world travellers.
In those days, it hit you as soon as you boarded Aeroflot, and only intensified on landing: waves of a warm mellow mature smell that somehow complemented the ubiquitous maroon of the furnishings and the hostesses’ uniforms. “Musky-tusky” was one passenger’s apt description – something like an old warm loft, filled with sunshine of a hundred summers, sweet hay and the golden scent of just slightly over-ripe apples. And of course, the tang of traditional Russian cigarettes in their rolled card holders. There was something animalic in there, too, from the winter furs in which nearly all the locals were swathed. To begin with we were slightly taken aback by the speed and firmness with which all our outdoor clothes were removed in every public bulding to vast beautifully ordered cloakroooms; then our darling Intourist guide explained in her purring English that many furs tended to be  “ah…not so well cured…”, a condition to which the warmth of theatres, museums and restaurants drew unwelcome attention. A delicious scent of oranges blended in too, at the opera and ballet: the old Imperial box at the Maryinsky Theatre was still fitted out in walnut and blue velvet; crammed not with Grand Dukes and Duchesses, but ladies straight from the factories bringing vast string bags full of fruit and the occasional bottle of “Red Poppy” (Krasnya Mak) the only scent I ever saw on sale. Thickly oleaginous it was, a sweet powdery even chalky floral apparently macerated in petrol.
Each dim hotel landing was the domain of a (usually) elderly lady who sat at a desk at the top of the stairs and monitored all the comings and goings. She also, if so disposed, supplied tea,dispensed lavatory paper and extra blankets, if tactfully handled (individual pages of Vogue, biros and lipsticks being the preferred currency). These ladies never seemed to go off duty, night or day but kept up their vigilance fuelled by the samovar and tangy dishes of salted lemons, pickled herrings and cucumbers brought from the cosy little buffets that were to be found on every other floor of the big hotels. These buffets also sold tiny delicious cakes – shells of pastry filled with vanilla, chocolate and coffee cream, exactly as one imagined the delicacies stuffed with arsenic that were offered to Rasputin by his royal murderer, Yussopov.
Through Siberia, heaped with snow and such intense cold that the breath froze to crystals as one exhaled and the sense of smell was numbed. Expect this in very cold weather: your skin lacks warmth, there is not sufficient heat for perfume oils to open and evaporate. (I remember a damp freezing December in Berlin and going to a round of birthday parties, all curiously devoid of smell due to this phenonemon; and the new bottle of scent I had brought with me quite wasted). In Novosibirsk, a fried fish restaurant where emaciated waitresses leaned against the walls and coughed their lungs out; to the circus, full of sawdust and hot greasepaint: and thus aboard the Trans Siberian where passengers wore pyjamas for the duration; the perspiring cook, stripped to the waist, ladled out bear stew in the galley; and we settled our stomachs with a fragrant bottled honey drink the name of which loosely translated as “Bee Juice”.
And finally to the hot semi-tropical lushness of Yalta and the Crimea: a stomach upset treated by a tumblerful of boiling vodka, in which was dissolved black pepper and a knob of butter. It worked too: vodka has great medicinal properties. Years later when half-dead of food poisoning in Uzbekhistan, all alone with a bottle of Jicky, I was swabbed down by a charitable cleaner with a floorcloth sopped in vodka from what looked like a milk bottle. The beginnings of my recovery dated from that moment. The waterfront at Yalta was lined with marvellous flowering trees (never identified) covered with pink blossoms which looked and smelled like scoops of strawberry ice cream. A bronzed Dutch lady in a marvellous swimming costume covered in michaelmas daisies was invariably scented with Caron‘s Fleurs de Rocailles, its delicate notes of lilac and violet shimmering and transparent in the damp heat. We choked in acrid smoke from a burnt rainy barbecue on the Fairy Picnic: and I recall a magnificent oriental tea-party after a tour of Catherine the Great’s palace (airless and dusty: someone fainted) at the Fountain of Tears. A spread worthy of the Empress: rose petal jam, glasses of what smelled and tasted like Tia Maria, and sugar-coated jam doughnuts, served up in a conservatory filled with palms and scarlet hibiscus.
But weaving in and out of all this kaleidoscope of colour,taste and scent, there were always those musky apples in the background, like a miasma. I wonder if its still there….
Image from wayfaring.info

Nicholas + Alexandra

Nicholas & Alexandra - Tsar & Tsarina

They called one another Nicky and Alicky, Sunny and Lovey-dear, hubby and wifey: they were the last Emperor and Empress of Russia (a title they preferred to Tsar and Tsarina) and all they really wanted was a recreation of English bougeois family cosiness amid the snows and barbaric splendours of Old Muscovy. We looked at their terrible last days in an earlier blog: now let’s inhale the ambience of their lives in splendour.

Alexandra (our Queen’s great great aunt; and Prince Philip’s great aunt) was largely brought up by her grandmother Queen Victoria to whom perhaps she owed her love of fresh air and extreme cold: Victoria suffered so terribly from hot flushes all her life that she would have fires lit by Balmoral staff abruptly doused with buckets of water; she drove out daily whatever the weather; and like two other great sovereigns, Maria Theresa and Catherine the Great liked the windows flung wide at all times. As Empress (as we can see from numerous photos) Alexandra loved spending snowy sub-zero afternoons wrapped in furs on her balcony at Tsarskoye Selo: her sinister friend, Anna Vrubovya, the introducer of the serpent Rasputin into Eden, lived in a damp cottage in the palace grounds so cold that visitors kept their feet drawn up on divans from the icy floors.

Like many depressives, Alexandra was much affected by extremes of temperature and when not out in the cold she would retreat to her claustrophobic bedroom, furnished by Maples Ltd of the Tottenham Court Road. Here twin beds were pushed together under a tent-like canopy and battalions of ikons hung over and opposite the sleepers. Later, a photo of Rasputin’s mutilated corpse would be hung at the end of the Empress’s bed. The air, already laden with the attar of roses burning perpetually for 23 years in the ikon lamps, was heavy with Alexandra’s own white rose perfume and that of her full English breakfasts: Nicky was long up + dressed before his wife’s tray of bacon and eggs appeared, with toast and Coopers Oxford, a pot of very strong tea and a packet of 20 Players.

Having demolished all this (she suffered agonies from heart palpitations) Alex would often paint, sitting up in bed; or else, dressed in loose drifts of white silk, withdraw to a sofa in her Mauve Boudoir, decorated in her favourite colour with the exception of the pale green carpet. Everything else was mauve and cream, and the room filled with vases of immense size, crammed with violets, roses, lilac, wisteria, peonies and stocks brought daily by train across thousands of miles from the Imperial hothouses in the Crimea.

Here her five children would visit her, and Nicholas join her for tea and cigarettes from exquisitely coloured and jewelled Faberge boxes: he chain-smoked of course, and was always redolent of birch-cured Russian leather from his boots. When he had courted Alex in England, Queen Victoria remarked she always knew when he was in the palace from the scent of his leather luggage. If you take a look at the list of monarchs supplied by Creed (its on the lid of every box) you will see the Emperor’s name though details of commodities delivered are lost.

The offensive smells of Rasputin – the stale garlic, the drink, the sweat – left Alexandra  untroubled. Maybe she thought them subsumed by what she saw as his holiness. We know from her letters to the Tsar that just before the Revolution she visited an aged mystic, bed ridden in a country hovel – “but NO SMELL!” said the Empress. Perhaps that too she could see as a sign of sanctity.

Poor hysterical deluded Alexandra: this old woman gave her a magic comb and a magic apple to avert the coming cataclysm of 1917. A strange and weird combination of Snow White, the Gotterdammerung and Mr Pooter….