“An awesome knowledge that is probably unsurpassed in this country.”
Kate Shapland on Sally Blake - Marie Claire, November 1992
My mother, Sally Blake, was possibly the most respected perfume expert in the UK until her death in 1999 at the age of 65. ‘Through Smoke’, she told me, was the literal translation of ‘perfume’, or rather pro-fumo; - her life-long passion.
For Sally, an elusive, symphony of a scent was the very essence of the art of seduction. The magic potions created between the end of the 19th Century and up to World War 2, were designed to move and breathe with the wearer, creating a sillage, like the wake of an ocean liner that left those close to them intoxicated and desperate to draw nearer.
Eschewing modern concoctions that she felt did not develop from the first, top-note kick in the teeth, she believed that one had to “chase” a fragrance as it peeked coquettishly from behind an ear or from up a sleeve. She loved to try to isolate their components like she was unravelling some great exotic mystery. It tickled and annoyed when she sniffed at a newly rediscovered perfume she had found in some forgotten backstreet chemist and had squirted on my wrist - having run out of places to spritz on her own skin. I would twist away as she breathed in and out rapidly, her nose lightly touching my skin, with tiny urgent blasts, concentrating intensely.
“Vanilla,” she’d say, “definitely vanilla – and maybe a bit of tuberose...” - then, deferring to me: “what do you think?”
Convinced her sense of smell had been compromised by her 30-a-day smoking habit, and that I possessed the finest ‘nose’ lost to perfumery, she repeatedly tried and failed to persuade her contacts in the industry to give me a job from whence I could develop this talent she was so sure I possessed. However, whereas they may have politely ignored her letters on the subject of a daughter in need of a career, she was still often consulted by the great perfume houses when customers had approached them with questions as to what scent it might have been that their mother could have worn in such-and-such a year, or what potion their grandmother might have worn that had apparently created a stir at “Goodwood between the wars.”
Married to a television director, and sister to a film producer, she was consulted just as frequently by actresses keen to get the absolute essence, quite literally, of a character they were about to play in a film. She would always be able to come up with the answer. Even, on occasion, lending a bottle from her own collection for the shoot. It is, for example, my mother’s classic deco bottle of Guerlain’s Liu that may be seen on the dressing table of the late French screen Goddess, Jeanne Moreau, in ‘Agatha Christie’s: The Last Seance’. Liu, created in 1929 by Jacques Guerlain himself, was considered by Sally to be a darker, more brooding little sister to Chanel’s No 5, and therefore, it made perfect casting for the role.
She did indeed, speak of perfumes as if they were people. They all had their own personalities, and they always managed to cheer her up. For despite quite obvious despair, battling undiagnosed and medically unsupported depression for many years, smoking and drinking into the early hours due to a childhood fear of the dark that had followed her all her life, and writing page after page of letters to friends and relations that were never sent, one thing never failed to lift her spirits. Perfume.
Perfume, and the bottles that held it. On every mantelpiece, every shelf and nearly every surface, a bottle, a flacon, of some kind stood. A bottle about whose contents and creator, my mother, inevitably, knew everything. There was an entire room given over to bottles, perfumes, old toiletries, vintage magazines. Formerly part of the old servants’ quarters, it was known only as ‘The Perfume Room’, and in it, there was not a surface that was not at least ten deep in bottles. The collection was legendary to those in the know, such as Roja Dove, who introduced her to the journalist Kate Shapland, then Beauty Editor for Marie Claire magazine. Kate’s subsequent feature on her made her legendary too – for a time. Her name became known from Knightsbridge to Grasse, and her encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject recognised to be probably the most extensive in the world.
Then there was the Russian interlude. My mother had been in extensive talks with the Russian Embassy hoping to gain a contract to import Russian perfume to the UK. Unmoved by Western methods, back in the 1980s, the Comrades still made it the old fashioned way - oil-based in most cases, presented in proper leather boxes, holding scents to swoon for with names like Stone Flower, International Womens’ Day, Red Moscow, and the wonderful Sputnik (whose bottle shamelessly emulated Bourjois’ Soir de Paris). However, like so many of her fabulous ideas, with no money to back up her plans, the talks came to nothing. Now, all that remains of this brief shining hopeful moment in my mother’s life is a small filing cabinet on which one drawer still has a label stuck that reads simply: ‘Russia’.
On her death from a massive brain tumour in 1999, an ocean of notes, stories, and anecdotes was discovered spilling from drawers, cabinets, off the tops of bookshelves and wedged into file after file. Names like Atkinson, Revson, Patou, Guerlain, Caron, all had their own bursting files of notes and letters.
This collection of articles has been put together from the boxes of papers and files found after her death containing stories and snippets written on the backs of envelopes, post-it notes, and dozens of old exercise books. Where, in her enthusiasm, she has rushed ahead with a story, failing to provide details along the way, I have added as much as I can.
Her passion for perfumery was such that much of her opinion on the scents she was reviewing in the 1980s and 1990s might be considered somewhat ‘savage’, especially for those who may feel that such as Giorgio are now ‘classics’, but her views reflect the time in which she was living. Subtlety and seduction had given way to instant gratification, big business, power dressing, and suitably harsh scents created in laboratories thrashing a discordant accompaniment to the age. If she were alive today, I truly believe she would be heartened at the turn that perfume has taken as more and more people hunger for the powdery scents of old, and maestro perfumiers, such as her old friend, Roja Dove, create masterpieces once again. I am only sorry she did not live to see it – or to smell it.
Born into a family that merged crumbling English aristocracy with actors, Celtic Bards, and ballerinas, my mother’s own life was almost Delphic at times. I have therefore also added to her writings with some chapters of my own – about her. This book therefore, is as much the story of a woman clinging to the wreckage of beauty, dignity, and refinement, as it is the final presentation of her life’s work.
Sadly, devoted to nicotine as she was to the extent that it is thought more than likely it triggered the brain tumour that finally killed her, through many’s the night at the kitchen table with a glass or two of some cheap blend to keep her company, much of what is written here was written through smoke too…
Emma Blake © updated 2017