Thursday, 30 October 2014

A Practical Woman

No matter how many times you caught them at it, and yelled, and clapped hands, and chased them out of the dining room, successive generations of cats had literally shredded my mother’s beautiful Chesterfield sofa.

She decided to get it recovered, but when she discovered how much this was likely to cost, she pulled out her old Reader’s Digest book on how to do just about everything, and reupholstered it herself. It took her about a week or so.

She found some brocade and got to work. It was transformed. Magnificent. A professional upholsterer could not have done a better job.
Me on the famous Chesterfield. Hanover Gate, c.1988 - Pic Gerald Blake

But it was not the sort of covering the sofa had been expecting. It was supposed to be leather. It was supposed to live in a stately home, or at a Gentlemen’s Club in St James’. Instead, it was covered in a capricious dark green and blue brocade, bulleted with buttons meticulously covered in the same fabric, and found itself next to a space-age 1970s white formica and glass ‘occasional’ table piled high with copies of 1950s Vogue. Our gracious Edwardian flat was a mass of contradictions. In the drawing room, the mantelpiece was covered in the sort of antique fripperies one might find in a Victorian parlour: two domed bisque figures (a gentleman and lady in Regency garb) at either end, a Meissen dog figurine snuggled with a cheap sixpenny china puppy with glittering green eyes (that I had bought at the seaside so Meissen Dog could have a friend), shoved up next to an early 19th Century black French slate clock, beneath a gold leafed Victorian fish-eye mirror crowned by the figure of an eagle with a ball suspended from its beak. The original ball had long since dropped off, but a little toy ball from my dolls’ house, painted gold with some of my brother’s Airfix enamels did the job just as well. It was “alright from the front”, as my mother was fond of saying, echoing a phrase from the theatre that meant that a prop or a set looked fine if you didn’t get closer than the front stalls.

This magnificent display presided over a scene that included a knackered gas fire (circa 1972), a cheap denim covered 3-piece suite, a violent pink Casa Pupo rug with half the tassels torn off by successive cats playing “the carpet game”, a Heal’s coffee table, and what had been a top of the range television for its time (a gift to my father from the BBC), that had since decided that whatever button pushed would bear no relation whatsoever to which channel actually showed up on the screen.

In the entrance hall, a gigantic mahogany and mirrored overmantle was somehow bolted to the wall above the telephone bookstand on which stood a vase full of mummy’s enormous, crazy, tissue paper poppies, whilst a harmonium with collapsed bellowes stood in the corner. You could pull out the stops and bash away like mad, but all you would get was a long, low E flat. It provided a handy surface for books and hats, however, and had a little compartment above the keyboard in which to store gloves.

I learned early on however, that this was not a house into which I should take anyone whom I did not completely trust, and certainly nobody from a ‘normal’ background.

When I invited a gaggle of the girls from my class at school over for tea, they wandered from room to room in gaping awe. I felt less like a host than a tour guide. My two best school friends at the time, Jenny and Gillian were polite and respectful, and delighted in it all, but others in the group went back to school the next day full of scorn, sneering that “Emma lives in an old junk yard.” Not for these modern misses antiquities, curios, or “old furniture” like a recovered Chesterfield or a perfectly round Walnut table “how do you have dinner at it?” (you don’t, you play cards...). The dust was also mentioned. Living sandwiched been the busy Park Road, the mouth of the main artery to the North, and Marylebone Station, it was a labour of Hercules to keep on top of the dust. It got everywhere. As did cat hair.

Later on, I introduced my first serious boyfriend into all this. He was a respectable young businessman I had met when I was working at Charbonnel et Walker. Sadly allergic to dust and cats, he tried his best to muck in with it all, but ended up simply fetching and depositing me for our jollies together.  

When I was 17, Mummy had given me a bottle of Caron’s Tabac Blond. It became absolutely my signature scent. My boyfriend however loathed it. “That old woman’s smell” he called it. This was the scent that had sent my father into paroxysms of rapture when he had woken up wondering what film star he was in bed with having been sprayed by my mother with some on one of his visits. A glorious scent, created by Ernest Daltroff in 1919 and worn by screen legend Mary Morris before me.
Mary Morris. Tabac Blond was good enough for her anyway...

My usually laid-back, don’t-interfere, and mind-you-own brother was appalled. “If you smelled of Dettol, he should love it because it would be YOUR smell” he told me (a wise 27 he was at the time).

In spite of this, I changed my scent. I started to experiment with others more to my then fiancé’s taste. He bought me a bottle of YSL’s Paris when we were in the South of France, following up with Opium for the evening. They were lovely scents, but there was a part of me that hated wearing something I knew millions of other women wore.  The exclusivity of wearing an old Caron or Chanel was something I never ceased to crave.

Somewhere around this time, Mummy had made friends with a young Persian boy called Shah who ran a vintage stall in Alfie’s Antiques Market on Lisson Grove, and he had found her a three bottle Chanel sampler from the 1950s. It contained 15ml bottles of Cuir de Russie, Gardenia and Bois des Isles. I fell madly in love with Gardenia, so when my Godmother passed away and left me some money, Mummy and I glammed up, and went to the Chanel boutique on Old Bond Street to buy some.
Not a bad consolation prize. Chanel 22...

We were devastated to find they had altered the recipe into something completely unrecognisable. Not only as Chanel’s Gardenia, but as any sort of Gardenia. What had been an utter song of a scent was now a clanging cacophony of synthetic and stomach turning stink. Desperately disappointed, I settled on a 30ml bottle of No 22 parfum instead. We retired to Richoux for tea, cheering ourselves up with some scones and Darjeeling, and a dab on our respective wrists of the 22, before getting on the number 13 bus back to Hanover Gate.

We didn’t realise it then, but it would be one of the last of such outings for us.

Emma Blake
October 2014 

Saturday, 25 October 2014


Over the years, Sally wrote to many famous people to ask about their scent loves. She was even in talks with the great Diana Vreeland about a perfume exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York, but like so many of her fabulous ideas, it came to nothing. 

Here are a few of the letters:
John Gielgud - 1984

"I have never used perfume myself and always felt useless at knowing what my lady friends preferred. I remember most vividly the smell of the floor covering in the big hall at Harrods, where as children our mothers would deposit us when they did their shopping. It was exactly the same as that on the big liners, the Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, on which often I sailed to America before aeroplanes become popular. 
Also, there was a kind of incense with which rich people often burned in their halls and drawing rooms in the 20s and 30s, bought I think, at Floris in Jermyn Street, and heated over the lamps before guests arrived - very pungent and agreeable. 
John Gielgud"

John Gielgud's permission to use his "remarks on smells" for her book - 1984
"Of course you can use my odd remarks on smells. Yes, I used to buy incense burners at Floris myself. I remember loving it at the Brompton Oratory, and also at the theatre where, in Chu Chin Chow it was wafted over the footlights in the opening scene to great effect. 
John Gielgud"
From Diana Vreeland. The "little Duchess" referred to was Wallis Windsor - 1986

As the book my mother wanted to write began to formulate, she wrote notes about how she thought it might work:

A rare spelling error for the classically educated and meticulous Sally Wyndham Davies ('catagorised') - what would her old English teacher, Miss Disney say??
"Notes on Flaconnage" - complete with whisky glass stain...
I have boxes full of this stuff...

Emma Blake

October 2014

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Revivalists

The sweet whiff of nostalgia
by Sally Blake
(websites added by Emma Blake...)

Crabtree & Evelyn
Crabtree & Evelyn - Regent Street

Crabtree & Evelyn is so emphatically Olde Worlde English that it simply has to be foreign  - and of course it is; the firm’s origins are actually American. They did give a nod to this in the 1980’s with the delightfully unusual Savannah Gardens, and Nantucket Briar, although the former did not prove popular and was discontinued.

Unlike, say, Penhaligon’s, who don’t have to work at it because they are English, even Floris which, although founded by a Spaniard [Juan Famenias Floris from Menorca], has a 200-year St.James’ head-start on C&E, making comparisons unkind. Lovely Crabtree have to be seen to be English because they are not.

But if Crabtree & Evelyn have not been around for 200 years, they like to look as if they have, hence the dear little bow-windowed shops, tiled porches, wooden shop floors, and free-standing baskets laden with dried flowers and pot-pourris; the bowls filled with lace-trimmed sachets, and the soaps and colognes with suitably old fashioned names assiduously copied from antique labels.

The bottles of course are faithful copies of the flaconnage Atkinson saw fit to discard so long ago on their flight to Milan.

And even if it is all a nostalgia trip down Memory Lane to the days of the “Farmer King” and Good King George’s Golden Days with Loveday Merridew, bonneted and be-ribboned, bobbing down cobbled streets in sprigged muslin, carrying a glowingly golden wicker basket laden with lavender through a fairytale town of houses with overhanging gables and twinkling mullioned windows which never, ever existed in reality – does it matter? Isn’t it pleasant?

Being American of course, they have combined respect for the past with a commercial awareness of the profit potential of nostalgia. Nostalgia is big business, and the proliferation of Crabtree & Evelyn shops throughout the world proves it.
'Ye Olde Civet Cat' - Kensington Church Street

200 years ago, London was filled with perfumers [it had to be – it stank to high Heaven with open ditches running with dead dogs and human waste! – EWB], the sign of the Civet Cat sprouted from a thousand shop-fronts. Now there is just one left: hanging over Barclays Bank in Kensington Church Street, the site of a former pub calling itself Ye Olde Civet Cat. Crabtree & Evelyn set up their flagship store as close to it as physically possible without actually setting up a counter within the bank’s Bureau de Change.

Such dedication deserves its success.

Jean Laporte – L’Artisan Parfumeur

A more recent addition to the select world of perfumers is young, enthusiastic and imaginative Jean Laporte, who by 1977, had opened five salons in Paris under the sign of “L’Artisan Parfumeur” with branches in New York, London, Los Angeles and Rome.

At the time of writing, every salon features a life-size effigy of a 18th Century Marchand de Parfums, a certain Monsieur de Larmessián, wearing a coat of claret velvet extravagantly frogged in gold, with breeches tied at the knee, claret coloured stockings and satin bows to his shoes, bewigged and moustached liked Charles II, Monsieur de Larmessián stands bearing a tray of his products with others pinned about his person in faithful replica of a contemporary print of the times.

The dreadful fate of poor M. Fargeon, perfumer to the courts of Louis XV and XVI, forced [like Mozart] by his illustrious clients, into bankruptcy with debts outstanding to the tune of almost a quarter of a million pounds (an astonishing sum in those days, and hardly insubstantial now either), with £20,909 owed by Louis XV alone, has obviously not deterred M. Laporte from following in his footsteps.

Bewitched and enamoured by the master perfumers of the 18th Century, he has produced a range of toilet waters, oils, essences, burning perfumes, soaps and pot-pourris in the style of le Grand Siècle, a vast range of fragrances gloriously packaged in gold topped flacons. Another range, “Les Rètros - scents of the 1930’s”, recaptures the most glamorous decade of the 20th Century.

The pièce de resistance however, has to be Le Parfum Qui Vous Métamorphose, strikingly beautiful, the flacon bears a milk glass butterfly with folded wings on a ground glass stopper[i]; the toilet water, an even grander butterfly with wings outspread.

With all presented in boxes of either claret or black with gold lettering, the fragrances include: Amber, Opoponax, Exotique, Vanilla, Iris, Lilac, Eau d’Osman, Vetyver, Rose Bigarade (wild oranges), Grapefruit, Passion Fruit, Mure et Musc, and La Haie Fleurie du Hameau – the warm heady scent of cottage gardens tangled with roses and honeysuckle nestled in sleepy villages.

Such an explosion of scents bombards the senses and sends one out of the shop on an intoxicating cloud of sensual pleasure.

Sally Blake
Date unknown

Post Script by Emma Blake

The Crown Perfumery

Founded in 1872 by William Sparks Thomson, a maker of crinolines and corsets, and catering to the high society in London and Europe, Thompson launched a collection of floral fragrances called ‘Flower Fairies’. Queen Victoria granted the Crown Perfumery her own crown's image to top the fragrance bottles. By the end of the century, Crown Perfumery was exporting nearly 50 different perfumes and accompanying products to countries all over the world. Mrs. Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, was the inspiration for the creation of 'Crown Bouquet'.

Some time during the 1980s, my mother tried her best to help the new owner, Clive Christian, to relaunch. They took on a tiny outlet on Park Lane, and began to offer their fabulous scents again. Using the old recipes, they reinvented (amongst others) Stephanotis, Heliotrope, and the famous Crown Rose. Sadly, the business foundered, and was sold on, with Clive moving on to create his own signature scents under his own name. You can still buy a few of the old favourites online – if you’re quick.

Taking up the standard since however, are:

Anglia Perfumery

From their home page: “Anglia Perfumery was founded in 2002 with the stated aim of revitalising precious treasures threatened by obsolescence, as some of the old traditional English manufacturers had started to "go with the times" and were discontinuing fragrances when demand slackened, or creating new scents lacking in the essentials of the art of English perfumery.

Anglia Perfumery has pledged to maintain the English scent tradition and commenced the range with formulae dating back to 1900: Royal Court and Imperial Lime. We revived and slightly revised some of Crown Perfumery’s discontinued fragrances and created new fragrances in the traditional English manner (Velvet Rose, Strand, Anglia, Amber, Richmond, Somerset and Patchouli, Queen’s, and Isle of Man).”

Roja Dove

The guy simply does it best. My mother’s dearest friend and ally in perfumery. With a love for the old scents and the way they were made that was to a large extent, nurtured over many’s the long night at our old kitchen table at Hanover Gate, Roja has dedicated his life to creating ‘proper’ perfume for the modern age. Perfume that offers unspeakable glamour, sophistication, and luxury. If I ever win the Lottery, I’ll be going to Roja’s Haute Parfumerie at Harrods to choose my next pong...

Emma Blake
October 2014

[i] My mother’s bottle is now in the collection of her dear friend, Roja Dove.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Helena Rubinstein

Helena "Chaja" Rubinstein

On 25 December 1872, the women of the world were given a Christmas present – Helena Rubinstein was born.


Shortly before she died, Helena Rubinstein gave her secretary some advice: “When I die,” she said, “buy stock. It will go up until they know what’s in my Will.”

She was, as always, right. Her stock did go up – until her Will was published.

Sitting in lotus-position isolated in her huge bed under satin sheets, wearing a $4 cotton nightdress, blue-black chignon unravelling down to the small of her back, she read the financial section of the newspaper every morning of her life – horn-rimmed spectacles sliding down to the tip of her nose. A giantess; less than 5 feet tall.


“The Nail Man” put in a bid (how could he not?), but Colgate got it and “sold it like soap”, sending the business plummeting to the depths.

Sally Blake
Date unknown

Revson (Revlon)

Charles "Charlie" Revson c.1940

If such a thing were possible, Charles Revson would be the love-child of Thomas J. Barret (the unsung patron saint of Madison Avenue) and François Coty.

Anyone who was alive and young in the 1950’s will never forget the excitement as those fabulous nail colours and lipsticks hit the High Street stores.

Boxed in individual cartons, each with individual artwork and names like we had never had before: Fire and Ice, Cherries in the Snow, Fifth Avenue Red, and Love That Pink.

Advertisements took up whole pages in magazine, and each carton carried a miniature reproduction of the ad for its contents.

So what? Before Revson, lipsticks had names like Cherry, Rose, or Medium Red, and took up a couple of inches of a magazine page in black and white at most, that’s so what.

Charlie Revson wasn’t all that satisfied with one page in full colour either, and often took up two.

“The Nail Man” Helena Rubenstein called him.

How did he get to be The Nail Man? Because he had a girlfriend who happened to manicure Diana Vreeland’s nails, and because he started as he meant to go on, by lifting other people’s ideas...

We had Charlie apples, Charlie solid perfume pendants, Charlie soaps, bags, face-cloths, towels, beach bags, shoulder-bags, vanity cases, sweat-shirts, umbrellas (yes, he was the first with umbrellas), you name it, we had it, and all marked Charlie.

[here there is a note reading simply: “continue”. She evidently never got around to it.]

Sally Blake
Date unknown