A Carpet of Flowers, A Carpet of Tears

 

A clever man on the wireless said that whether or not we are aware of it, sleeping or waking, we are smelling smells ALL the time. Continuously and continually, like animals. And we know how wild beasts are: from shrews & field mice to elephants & polar bears, they are in a perpetual state of agitated nervous tension. The olfactory sense is a constant nagging spur to survival. This past week I have been under a veritable bombardment of smells and thereby living on my nerves in consequence.

 

I saw a man mowing down a patch of huge purple violets. I had to ‘say something’: it was like watching a massacre. Well, it was a massacre. He laughed. He said, ‘I thought they were weeds’. But the strange and wonderful thing is, that within just a few days the musky perfumed carpet was all in bloom once more: violetta triumphans! Shy and dainty violets may be; but they are tough and dogged too. I thought of Napoleon Bonaparte and his adoption of violets as his emblem – the violets and the golden bees. I wondered whether the tiny Emperor¤ saw something of himself in the flowers: diminutive, but strong and irresistible, rising up from exile in Elba to throw Europe back into panic and terror.

 

I came back from church last Sunday still pleasantly be-fogged by incense from the thurifer which swung in great arcs over the congregation. I love the look of the perfumed blue clouds as much I do the smell. The scented smoke billows up into the vaulted arches, and wreathes around the gilded angels and painted gargoyles. The incense slowly invades dark corners of the building and steals into the soul. It cannot be kept out. It purifies, sanctifies, cleans and inspires. It lulls you; and it brisks you up.

 

So I walked up the road and the divine gave way to the mundane but comfortable. An echo of the respective roles of SS Mary and Martha who feature so much in the Christian liturgy just now. The woman of worshipful meditation: and her sister, cumbered with domestic industry. Here was the nostalgic savoury smell of Sunday lunches being brought to table. Quite a rare odour nowadays – roast beef or lamb¤¤, gravy and hot horseradish, mint sauce, fatty potatoes, boiled cabbage, smoking oil. All meshing and contrasting with the spring smells of the first lawn mowings, the chilly fresh air, the trumpeting garish daffodils. And of course, a bonfire – the acrid pungent combustion of winter rubbish, so different from the nostalgic smouldering of autumn leaves. A March bonfire sends you rushing out to get the clean laundry off the line and inside. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle goes mad.

 

Many years ago, of a sunny Sunday morning, I used to be wild for the taste and smell – besides the tonic effect – of Cinzano Bianco. The lust for Cinzano maybe grew in turn from infant experiences of my grandfather’s parlour. We used to toddle round after Sunday school. The house below the church has been demolished these past forty years, but in my memory I can still see the great drinks tray laid out with gin, “It”, Martini, Noilly Prat. The fumes of alcohol mingled with those of turps, oil paints and a damply sputtering log fire. When grandpapa had given a cocktail party he would go round afterwards and tip the dregs from all the glasses into one bottle, shake it up and save it for the next Sunday.

“Thrift, thrift Horatio!” – and with quite a kick.

 

Cinzano and Martini take their distinctive aroma from dozens of herbs and spices: “over sixty”, says one label. I guess it is that which makes these beverages smell and taste very like cheese and onion crisps. (Those same crisps they tell us that Mrs May has forsworn for Lent). What an intoxicating combination of contrasts and sharp savoury green & gold odours: the crunchy and the oleaginous; the salty and the unctuous.

 

Shall we end with another carpet, this time of roses? When I attended the recent Fragrance Foundation Jasmine Awards in Piccadilly, the specactacular flowers by Moyses Stevens were not the least of the attractions. A vast urn filled with roses and lilac towered over a table wrist-deep in exquisitely scented rose petals of every shade. I felt pleasantly similar to the flower-drowned victims of Heliogabalus.

 

Not to mention The Babes In The Wood:

 

“And Robin Redbreast Sorrowing

Covered them with – rose – leaves!”

 

¤ did you ever see Bonaparte’s satin shoes, in a glass case at Malmaison? A comfortable fit for a large cat or a hare, I thought.

¤¤ very lean nowadays. Joints look and taste totally different from the gory “marbled meats” of my youth. They look reconstructed, even “dumbed-down”. And do you remember roast mutton? (“Hand onion sauce and redcurrant jelly separately”). Gorgeous: despite the strong smell of wool.

 

…AND NOW:

 

I must enthusiastically and gratefully acknowledge every dear reader, customer and friend of Les Senteurs & of Lemon Wedge who has been so kind as to congratulate this old boy on his recent Jasmine Award.

 

I am so very touched and appreciative of all your warmth, kindness and generosity. THANK YOU, so much.

 

On the day of her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Marie Louise said to the gallant aged Sovereign:

 

“O, grandmama! How proud you must be!”

 

To which the Queen-Empress replied,

 

“No, dear Child. Very humble”

 

I must confess to being both.

 

Thank you.

Love

James.

Advertisements

When Toni met Therese

katetattershalldotcom

Well I have to tell you I finally finished Buddenbrooks and the only thing is to do now is embark on a repeat journey through this most seductive of novels.

Meanwhile to clear the palate – though this is maybe an unfortunate metaphor in the circumstances – I re-read Zola’s 1867 shocker Therese Raquin which seemed to me to have gained in horror over the years. I suppose advancing age makes this study of lust, murder, physical and mental decay even more disturbing. I now had to skip certain passages and once felt actually sick.

But there’s a connection with Buddenbrooks: the acute, even neurotic, sensitivity to smell. It surprises me that the party line today is the extreme difficulty of expressing scent and odour in words: publishers tell me they are chary of books on the subject of perfume; television treads a wary path despite sporadic huge success on shopping channels. Yet here we are in the gifted hands and brains of two nineteenth century novelists who use words and images precisely and exquisitely to convey smells.

One of the subtle images that only becomes apparent as you read the final chapters of Buddenbrooks is that the smell of death – strange yet familiar as Mann keeps reminding us – is continually abroad in the house of this once prosperous thriving family. It comes to the nose on odd currents of air, despite the heaps of tuberoses, violets and roses heaped up in the Sterbzimmer; it manifests even when the family is apparently whole and healthy. Evidently there is a rottenness in German society – and of course this is the theme that so enraged Hitler later on.

Zola fills Therese Raquin with the stench of corruption that breeds and fructifies in extremes of heat and cold. The characters’ bodies burn with desire, avarice, greed and delirium. When Therese ( born under the hot sun of Algeria ) are not writhing in bed they’re sweating and baking in the suburban countryside, eating in cheap restaurants smelling of burned fat, sour wine and dust; or stifling in hackney cabs. They live in a subterranean passage, in a terrible cavern of a shop with claustrophobic flat above. All is gloom, darkness, damp, the cold perspiration of guilty terrors. Everything is horribly softly wet and bloated like the flesh of their drowned victim, hosed down in cold water on the slabs of the Paris morgue – freely open to the public as a place of entertainment.

One of Zola’s masterstrokes is to have Therese’s seductive body smell of violets – that musky indolic note that is often compared to the scent of death. Elizabeth Jane Howard comments on this in her memoir “Slipstream” – her deceased mother’s room seemed filled with the delicate scent of the flowers though none were there. The roses with which Therese’s aunt thinks to purify the murderers’ nuptial bedroom wilt in the heat of the fire, becoming not bridal but bestial and we remember that chemists have noted the molecular similarity of rose extract to human sweat.

By a final irony Zola himself perished in 1902 as a result of a curious accident which he might well have relished as one of his own plot devices: he died of monoxide poisoning, caused by the the malfunctioning bedroom chimney.

Image: katetattershall.com

It isn’t raining rain, you know – It’s reigning violets!

A little while back I wrote to you about violets and promised a second look to examine their political and historic significance. Now that they have withered from the hedgerows let’s examine their eternal symbolism.

There are numerous perfumes on the market today which are associated with Napoleon Bonaparte and his family. Although I was much enthralled by the Emperor when doing my History A levels, I’ve since found the gilt has fallen off the gingerbread: I got extra marks once from a no doubt very bored teacher for remarking in an essay that Bonaparte cheated at cards and kept diamonds sewn in the lining of his coach in case of the need for hasty flight.
“Pourvu que ca dure”, Letizia Buonaparte, “Mme Mere”, kept kibbitzing and krechtzing in her Ajaccio market accent, and no doubt it got her son down and unnerved him. Now my attitude is something between the opinions of his two wives. Josephine’s “Bonaparte est bon a rien” and bouncy Marie Louise’s ingenuous remark on their first meeting, “you’re better looking than your portraits!”

Napoleon took the violet as one of his symbols along with the Imperial Bees and Eagles; but a coded emblem this time, a ciphered encouragement to Bonapartists during his first exile on Elba. The Little Corporal was dubbed “Caporal Violette”, his supporter wore sprigs of the flower and whispered round the double password, “Aimez vous la violette?” “Elle revient le printemps..” And of course he did come back with the violets in the spring of 1815, riddled with the haemorrhoids which lost him Waterloo. When they brought the news to the Empress Marie Louise, the messengers found her more interested in a new pair of shoes than the massacre in Belgium which kept the denture market supplied with the teeth of the fallen for decades to come.

But why the violet? Maybe because a drawing of a stylised flower bears a resemblance to an Imperial Bee, which in turn some said was an inverted Royalist fleurs de lys. Was there an irony to it? The tiny apparently modest violet, clad in imperial purple, who turns out to be the universal conqueror . You can’t help wondering if somewhere there is not a tenuous cross-Channel link with the colloquialism “coming up smelling of violets”. Bonaparte women found the symbolism handy for personal adornment. The botanising Josephine loved violets; after the fall of the Empire Marie Louise propagated them in her Duchy of Parma. Winterhalter’s group portrait of Eugenie, Empress of Napoleon 3rd ( Bonaparte’s nephew and keeper of the flame) shows her in a crinoline in the colours of white and purple violets with a posy of the flowers in her hand, the central focus of the painting.

Maybe Bonaparte was saluting the glory of Ancient Greece in his choice. Violets sprang from the blood of the warrior Ajax; the sweat of Alexander was said to be sweet-smelling as violets; and Athens, the Queen of Greece, was the Violet – Crowned City, thanks to a word-play on the name of her legendary king Ion (“a violet”).

Whether violet-scented or not, Napoleon was a prodigious user of cologne, splashing it around in lieu of a good wash I’m inclined to think, since he certainly preferred his women on the grubby side. (Here Josephine failed him, changing her linen four times a day.) Both 4711 and Roger + Gallet claim a connection; at Les Senteurs we have modern niche perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato’s Eau de Gloire an evocation of the Emperor’s native Corsica. Its pendant portrait is Eau Suave, a souvenir of Josephine’s childhood tropical gardens on Martinique, and the Malmaison Redoute roses of her maturity. Creed of course owed a great debt to the patronage of the Empress Eugenie in the 1850’s and 60’s, though their stupendous oriental violet fragrance Love in Black, had to wait until the 21st century to be born.

Though the most poignant story of all concerning the Bonapartes and flowers is told of not a violet but a tulip. In extreme old age, just after the Great War, the widowed Eugenie revisited Paris and walked in the gardens of her former home, the Tuileries: the palace was long gone, burned fifty years before, but she reached over a railing to pick a tulip only to be checked by an officious park-keeper who failed to recognise his former Empress. “Mme, it is forbidden to pick the flowers”.

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

“Chuck him without a qualm, Violet!”

Dans Tes Bras Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums

The first violets of the year are opening on the grass verge by my bus stop. Very early this year. Strange that such beautiful and iconic flowers should spring from the litter of crisp packets, flattened Coke tins and ciggie butts; akin to Swift’s “gaudy tulips sprung from dung” and not a whit diminished by their sordid fertiliser. The leaves are large, heart-shaped and a brilliant lettuce-green; and while the flowers are not as large or fragrant as Parma’s the scent is a knock-out.

And not quite as you imagine: every year I am pleasantly and slightly shocked by it. It’s definitely a carnal, indolic smell. Sweet of course, and musky, but sometimes almost like the faintest whiff of fresh meat: not at all like the traditional Devon Violets bath salts or those cheap mauve cachous “traditionally eaten by maids to sweeten the breath”. Violets in the raw have a sexy, sensual, fleshy smell, albeit extremely subtle: hence their use in modern “skin scents” (not a very attractive term: and is not every perfume intended for the skin?). Malle‘s Dans Tes Bras is a classic of the genre: violet blended with iris, suede and cashmeran, just lightly brushing the wearer’s skin,alighting on it like a butterfly.

And yet the violet was beloved by the late Victorians as a symbol of innocence, shyness, and modest womanhood. There was a rage for them in the garden, the conservatory, as a perfume, as a crystallized delicacy, a wine and as a dress accessory – posies of the real thing, and made of silk or velvet to pin on hats and gowns. Violet became excessively popular as a colour and as one of the newly fashionable flower names for girls: Violet Trefusis, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, Violet Bonham Carter; Sherlock Holmes’s client Violet Hunter; Violet Carson,and on the new cinematograph, Violet Hopkins. Old catalogues list wonderfully named plant varieties for cultivation  – Marie Louise, Neapolitan, Victoria Regina, White Czar and Comte Brazza.

Both sexes doused themselves in violet fragrances: even our dear staid George V loved Trumper’s Violettes d’Ajaccio, maybe influenced by his mother Queen Alexandra, who lived in a haze of violet and rose. So ubiquitous was the use of violet perfume that it fell quite undeservedly out of fashion in the mid-20th century, hopelessly stigmatised by that other awful phrase – “old ladies’ scent”. (As we hear on the news today that the expression “old dears” is to be banned, wouldn’t it be nice to see the back of that silly phrase, too?)  For years violet scent was very scarce in the shops, and then around the late 1990’s perfumers once more returned to its magic, re-invented for a new generation.

Now we have the quintessentially 21st century extravaganza Lipstick Rose which wittily subverts all the traditional presentation and shows up a dazzling shocking pink bouquet of raspberry, rose, violet, grapefruit and aldehydes. The Unicorn Spell also turns the old ideas inside out and sparkles like an icy green forest where violets brave the frosts to exude their odour. For those who desire to swathe themselves in an aura of purple and flame velvet, try Caron‘s Aimez Moi: a baroque fantasy of Parma violets, apricots and vanilla. Gourmand to a degree, smell me…eat me.

But there is another aspect to violets – what we might call the “Political Perfume”- and to this I shall return another time.