The Setting of the Sun

King Louis

I admire the Sun King, I suppose, but I don’t like him especially. I feel we would not have got on. It is now exactly 300 years since Louis XIV, the terror of Europe, died in his golden bed at Versailles after a reign of 72 years. Like a queen bee’s cell in a hive, Louis’s bedroom was located at the very centre of the glorious palace which defined and celebrated his grandeur. The Huguenots and European Protestants whom he had persecuted were not slow to draw a moral from the last days of the old tyrant, lying there tormented by the smell of his own decay. Louis’s leg was eaten with gangrene: no surgeon would risk an amputation without anaesthetic which would have killed him anyway from shock. Instead the royal doctors applied milk poultices and leeches, sprinkled vinegar and burned scented candles and pastilles to sweeten the room. It was late summer and as all the windows were closed against the dangerous fresh air the smell was appalling. Maybe as Louis lay there he thought of his mother Anne of Austria who had been vivisected on her own death bed with astringent oil of limes poured into her open wounds. This was the man famous for his aphorism “J’ai failli attendre”¤. But the Destroying Angel took his time. It was a cruel end for a man who had always been avid for unique and piquant olfactory sensations and, as his enemies were quick to point out, as he sowed so did he reap.

For Louis’s long life had seen vast sums of money spent on the importation and cultivation of exotic flowers such as tulips, jonquils and tuberose all of which novelties reached astonishing heights of popularity with prices to match. Pineapples, dahlias, tomatoes, tobacco, coffee, chocolate and vanilla were all recent novelties from the Americas and Asia. Naturally le grand Monarque had to have the most and the best. Gardenias, wisteria, camellias and laburnum later added to the plethora of new colours, tastes and scents.

This was the era when modern gardening and the scientific classification of plants began. At Versailles, which set the tone for every royal Court around the world, the terraces were stocked with such a profusion of heavily scented flowers – especially the King’s favourite orange blossom, planted out in solid silver tubs – that visitors passed out, overcome by the overpowering scent. Flowers began to be brought indoors as part of the decor, so that the new art of flower arranging became a pastime for ladies of leisure. (Remember Florence Nightingale’s mother and sister a century later, begging one another not to exhaust themselves at the vases?).

The Sun King, like our own King James 1 (and V1)¤¤ and the Emperor Napoleon, was dabbed and rubbed with various herbal rinses in preference to risky bathing: there seems to have been not much in the way of luxury soap. Water, like root vegetables, tended to be associated with the poor. As a young man Louis was said to have the most beautiful pair of legs in France, which he loved to display on horseback and on the dance floor. Like his cousin, King Charles II, he had a profusion of thick long dark curls, a circumstance which helped to set the fashion for universal male wigs for over a century. Every man wanted to look like a king. As he aged, however, Louis’s mouth and teeth wore badly (not to mention other parts of him): primitive dentistry wreaked such havoc that, as he ate, most of his dinner came back down his nose. Can you wonder that his second wife asked the Pope if it would be ethical to cease marital relations? His Holiness said no. Still, the Royal linen smelled good, being laundered in a rinse of aloes, musk, orange water and jasmine oil. Then Paris in the 1680’s was rocked by the Affair of the Poisons. This scandal in high society led to the arrest and execution of dozens of unsavoury characters who not only distilled perfume and beauty preparations but also traded in poison, abortion, murder and (reputedly) black magic. Several prominent aristocrats were ruined by association, most sensationally the notoriously musky Mme de Montespan, Louis XIV’s intoxicating mistress and mother of several of his children. Maybe the enormous success of Farina’s prototype eau de Cologne smelling of sunshine and flowers and launched at the turn of the eighteenth century owed something to its symbolic sweeping away of such horrors. The Montespan’s successor in the royal affections was very much an eau de Cologne woman: Louis’s morganatic wife Mme de Maintenon was neat, pious and interested in the education of children from grand but underprivileged backgrounds.

Farina’s masterpiece aside, the choice of perfumes remained limited. For both men and women musk and ambergris were still the most popular scents, used to scent rooms, furniture and even food. These animal derivatives and residues would be dissolved in wine or mixed into chocolate, cream, soups and scrambled eggs prior to ingestion. Consequently fumes of ambergris streamed from the pores to surround the eater with a richly feral aura, while the newly fashionable hand-made wallpapers might be impregnated with musk. The purpose of perfume was not only aphrodisiac but also medicinal, it being then believed that what smelled good would do you good, inside and out. More immediately, heavy fragrances were essential to disguise the odours of insufficiently washed bodies, bad teeth, hair and wigs stuck with bear grease; and luxurious fabrics which could never be washed, only brushed and sprayed.
The use of perfume in the grand Siecle as a camouflage for bad smells, and scent’s association with immorality and loose living, reinforced an already dubious reputation which did not even begin to dissipate until the twentieth century. Indeed a intriguingly ambiguous aura lingers faintly even today…and thank goodness for that!”

¤ “I nearly had to wait”

¤ ¤ James’s hands were very soft and the colour of black sarcenet. He immersed his feet in the smoking guts of freshly slaughtered deer to ease his gout.

Spanish Carnations: Vive el Rey!

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It is sad to see the old King of Spain putting aside his crown. When he came to the throne in the 1970’s after Franco’s unspeakably protracted end Juan Carlos was a great golden figure of traditional Bourbon glamour and vigour. The elegant & charming Queen Sofia was said to Hoover her own palaces and there were two pretty neo-Velasquez Infantas plus the little Infant Felipe for the picture papers to delight in: a perfect “Hola!” family to lead Spain out of the long shadows of the Civil War. My friend Dona Pilar who sold newspapers down our road had grown up in a country where women were forbidden to wear trousers nor any garment in red or yellow – the national colours. Do you remember, old books on colour symbolism used to say grimly “in Spain the public executioner is arrayed in yellow”?

And now all this has ended in the anti-climax of abdication and the dreariness of scandal. But the Spanish royals have never had much luck. Maybe Louis XIV’s pushing his grandson onto the throne in 1700 drew down a native curse on the Bourbon intruders. There followed feeble-minded monarchs who never got out of bed, were caricatured by Goya, chased out by Napoleon and subjected to anarchist outrages. An Infanta sent to Versailles as the fiancee of Louis XV was eventually humiliatingly returned to Madrid, labelled ‘Not Wanted’. The beautiful blonde Queen Ena, an English princess and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, had her wedding dress spattered with blood as a result of a terrorist bomb, an augury of a disastrous marriage.

What, I wonder, do we have in the shop as an olfactory ave atque vale to King Juan Carlos and to the new Felipe VI? Carnations are the national flower of Spain; crimson, pink and snowy flowers pulsating with that hypnotic creamy musky clove scent which electrifies you when encountered in a garden. A red carnation, say Spaniards, is the symbol of hopeless passion, erotic despair.

Ironically none of the perfumes at Les Senteurs use Spanish carnation oil but let that pass: the scent, if not the poetic conception, is similar; and (perceptible) carnation of any species is not common in modern perfumery. Caron’s Piu Bellodgia is a graceful reworking of their immortal Bellodgia first launched in 1927: a lighter, drier accord; powdery like petals. Myself, I think I may even prefer it to the great original. Creed’s Acqua Fiorentina is a decadently lush corncupia of white carnations atop velvety greengages and bursting plums; while Une Fleur de Cassie from Editions de Parfum uses the flowers to enrich an already hedonistic extravaganza of mimosa, acasias, apricots and jasmine.

But for a truly Hispanic experience, the full monty with castanets, fans, guitars mantillas and peinetas, try the Cuban pastiche of Molinard’s Habanita. This is perfumery’s legendary take on the Carmen/ Dietrich sluttish cigarette girl fantasy; you know, the one that has tobacco workers rolling cigars on their thighs; the story that inflamed the House of Molinard in 1921 when smokes were the sexiest smells in scent in the wake of Caron’s barnstorming Tabac Blond. Florid, smoky and dark as the Havana night, Habanita is spangled with stars of orange blossom, jasmine and lilac in a thicket of leather, benzoin, amber,oakmoss, vetiver and cedar with florid flashes of raspberry and peach.
It’s oily, earthy, seductive and as penetrating as a Toledo steel estoque.

Ole! We salute His Most Christian Majesty, King Felipe, as he takes the throne on June 19th.