A Passion for Fragrance
(Marie Claire – November 1992)
|Sally Blake in the Perfume Room at Hanover Gate 1992|
When Sally Blake met Mae West she was intoxicated by her glamour, magic – and her scent. The experience triggered her obsession with fragrance and ‘deranged her for life’; today her home is a museum housing over five hundred bottles and phials. By Kate Shapland
“I don’t consider it unreasonable not to want to smell like peach-melba yoghurt, fabric conditioner, insect spray or lavatory cleaner; I just feel that perfume should be a little more exclusive. No work of art was achieved painting by numbers; no symphony was ever composed with a synthesiser; so why is perfume, an ancient and arcane art, so consistently abused and defiled?”
I had been to see Sally Blake to talk about her life-long obsession with perfume and received these comments from her in a letter two weeks later. Blake is referring to the degeneration of perfumery as an art; her interest – her passion – lies in the skill of scent-making proper: fragrance craftsmanship, which she believes is evaporating as commercial demands challenge quality. And her preoccupation with scent – the flasks, the science, and the stories of its creation – is supported by an awesome knowledge that is probably unsurpassed in this country.
“I think what started it – what absolutely blew my head off and deranged me for life – was Mae West,” she says. As a fourteen-year-old Welsh schoolgirl (with plaits), Blake came to London to see Diamond Lil at the theatre.
“My mother was desperate to see Mae West,” she recalls, “but I was more interested in Danny Kaye. We waited at the stage door for them. I was clutching my autograph book for Danny, but decided to ask for Mae’s signature too.
“’Oh honey’ she said, climbing into a huge limousine, ‘don’t stand out there in the cold – come on in’. So I slipped into the darkness, sank down into lavender swansdown and fur and was intoxicated by the most heavenly scent I’ve ever smelt in my life. It was exposure to absolute glamour and magic; and when I fell out of that car, I was never the same again.”
Blake’s home now resembles a fragrant stronghold. At the time of writing, it houses five hundred bottles and phials filled with scents whose recipes have ‘died’ – exquisite elixirs which officially no longer exist but which Blake has managed to salvage.
“My first was Paris by Coty” she says, “followed by Apple Blossom and Green Velvet by Helena Rubenstein: then I had Red Lilac by Lenthéric. Somebody gave me Chanel No5 – but I prefer Chanel No22 – then I had Lanvin’s Prétexte, and Diorama.
“Diorama was possibly the most opulent, unbelievably glamorous scent ever. An article in the Sunday Times claimed it smelt of jasmine gathered before dawn in yellow Provençal baskets and that it was Dior’s greatest scent – but it didn’t sell. So they discontinued it.
“I was furious and wrote to Dior, who sent me four bottles. I made them last for donkey’s years. That was another reason I started my ‘hunt’: it seemed to me that everything I liked got discontinued – whether it was a lipstick shade or a perfume. And when Diorama went, it was the end as far as I was concerned: I’d already lost Lanvin’s Scandale, Prétexte, and Green Velvet.”
Another great admirer of Diorama was Srba Micovic, a Yugoslavian who represented Guerlain at Selfridges in London.
“He was remarkably knowledgeable about scent,” says Blake. “So I asked him if he would like to come and see my collection. And instead of being frightened or thinking this woman is crazy, he had the courage to come, and we talked about perfume for four hours.”
Micovic would go to Blake’s for a ‘Diorama fix’ – “we used to dream about wild cyclamen in the Yugoslavian woods” – and through him, she met Roja Dove, Guerlains Professeur de Parfum and fellow perfume lover.
“Guerlain has kept faith,” says Blake. “It’s a good deed in a naughty world: it’s the Vatican of perfumery. And it has managed to keep its head up in a market that has seen so many fragrance houses go down. They have always been wonderful to me. I also have charming correspondence with the director of the perfumers Rigaud – my mother wore Rigaud’s Un Air Embaumé, a glorious scent. Talented people are always the nicest; you can tell the Johnny-come-latelys by the bad way they treat you – in every sphere, not just perfumery.”
Guerlain created over two hundred perfumes before 1900.
“They made them for people, for parties and events,” says Blake. “It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing and some survived, for instance Eau Impériale (1853), Jicky (1889), and Eau du Coq (1894).”
|Part of Sally Blake's collection - on the piano at Hanover Gate|
As she takes you ‘bottle browsing’ around her museum, Blake relates tales that accompany many of the perfumes. “Patou’s Normandie was inspired by the liner, and the genius of it is that is smells of expensive suitcases – a lovely rosy sort of Russian leather smell. Vacances was created to commemorate the first paid public holiday. And Volt was named after the advent of electricity.
“Every single thing I look at, experience or read brings me back to perfume. I’ll see one called something strange like Rosine’s Le Balcon and think, ‘why on earth would anyone want to call a scent The Balcony? What an extraordinary thing.’ You think it must be something to do with Romeo and Juliet, and it turns out to have been inspired by a Baudelaire poem.”
Perfumery, she believes, is a great art.
“If it was music, it would be played at the Albert Hall or La Scala; if it was a painting it would be hung at the Louvre or Royal Academy. But people have always tended to look down their noses at scent, saying that no lady wore it. There was a terrible prejudice towards it.”
She denies that this attitude stemmed from Queen Victoria: “She was a great one for freebies, and she often wore Rigaud perfumes.”
Blake uses Picasso’s analogy, ‘Art is a lie that helps you see the truth’, to define the essence of perfumery.
“A scent may make you think it’s violet, but it’s probably nothing of the sort. Have you ever noticed how violets lose their scent? Well, they haven’t stopped smelling, it’s just that you’ve lost your ability to smell them because they carry an anaesthetic. It’s impossible to create ‘violet’ perfume without synthetic notes; a lot of manoeuvring has gone into a violet scent to make it appear ‘straight’.
“I like single florals – but I loathe the current obsession with fruit. I do not want to smell like a fruit bowl. I say to myself, ‘You don’t mind smelling of roses or violets, so why not smell like a grapefruit?’ But as far as I am concerned, there are classic smells which we all love – toast, fresh air, coffee, fruit – but commercially created scents shouldn’t try to be specific; they should create an ambience.”
Blake agrees that commercial scent can be very evocative.
“It’s strange how potent cheap music can be,” she says. “Charles Revson [of Revlon] realised that. But then he could have put Jeyes fluid into a scent bottle and sold it: he understood that it is the marketing that matters – not the product. It may be the greatest perfume that has ever been created, but if it doesn’t sell, that’s it.”
Which brings us back to Blake’s crusade.
“My main interest is fragrance,” she says. “The bottles are the cherry on the cake. Perfumery marries two great skills: the art of the flacon-maker and the beauty, mystery, joy and wonder of glass; then there’s the sorcerer’s potion inside. Just think how many senses it gratifies: sight, touch, smell – it just doesn’t make a sound.”