all-felt cornershop installed by artist Lucy Sparrow in the vicinity. Despite my love of English perfumes I had never heard of this house, but the window looked enticing and I promised myself I would return when the occasion arose.
It did last week, when we spent another family holiday in our favorite city within the European Union and decided to visit the famed Sunday flower market on Columbia Road, when all the little indie stores along the lane pop open. In the meantime I'd read up on Angela Flanders, only to learn with dismay that she had died in April of this year, at the gracious age of 88: an interesting woman who built a career in costume design, went free-lance into interior design and antiques in the 1970s and discovered perfume in her late Sixties, teaching herself the art and launching a perfumery business at an age when most people retire from professional life. I assume she must have been the oldest recipient ever of a FiFi award - at 84, for her 2011 Precious One as best new independent fragrance. Chapeau!
The shop is now tended by her daughter and it was crowded that Sunday with perfume aficionados. I was set on purchasing a fragrance as a souvenir of this London trip and had already laid eyes on Earl Grey, which sounded very British and just like like my cup of tea, if you'll permit the pun. I nosed myself through a dozen or more offerings, some trad, some modern, but in the end, Earl Grey EdP was it (winning out over the attractively dirty Ambre Noir) - and I do believe this early creation of hers (1994) in some ways epitomizes Englishness and English perfumery. The integration of otherness, as Peter Ackroyd noted in his study of English character, Albion, is key to understanding the mentality and history of the scepter'd isle. As in the case of Gin Tonic, Paisley ties, and Earl Grey tea this scent makes something distinctively English of imported goods - bergamot and other citrus notes, oriental spices, rosewood and patchouli. The zesty bergamot is folded into what I perceive as the sweet green of lime and orangey notes - it is less refined than the gentle clear bergamot of vintage Farina Gegenüber, but not as pungent as sticking your nose into some perfumed tea of the same name. There are no tea notes at all in the fragrance, notably. What pops up besides the citrus immediatly is a spicy melange of mace (the blossom of nutmeg, not the spray), coriander, cardamom and clove (which seem to have been favorites of Ms. Flanders, perhaps harking back to the spicy potpourri tradition) draped upon a bed of quiet bois de rose. Then there's what I perceive as a gentle patchouli, nothing near the earthy pungency of Villoresi's version, Montale's beastly Patchouli Leaves, or even the reference vintage Etro EdT. This is Anglicized patch free of dark foresty dampness, underbrush, humus, it's more Sissinghurst than Sherwood Forest, really. And there we are, this happy blend lingers about for a solid eight hours, with gentle sillage. It is well behaved, not at all sweet, smells natural, (more so, than, say, Cacharel pour homme) but in the slyly mannered fashion of an English garden that celebrates nature as improved by civilization. It lacks both the bodily eroticism and the abstract artfulness as it has defined classic French perfumery since Jicky, but you wouldn't want to wear Jicky to an afternoon tea at the Dowager Countess of Grantham's, now would you? Or even when eating clotted cream off your lover, for that matter. Earl Grey smells good and makes you smell good in a pleasant and unobtrusive manner, striking just the right Victorian balance of good taste, all-the-while coming off as utterly unslick; this is not the work of a Duchaufour or Morillas for Penhaligon's, that self-parodying simulacrum of Englishness wrapping itself around industrial perfumery, but the work of a dilettante as that word was understood in the 18th century: a devoted amateur who delights in a field with no primary pecuniary interest. Earl Grey is a fine fragrance indeed (and I do wonder whether it didn't partly inspire Jo Wood's Usiku, a spicier, ethno-new agier take on the same theme). The only place you can try it and buy it is in the two London stores on Columbia Road and in Spitalfields - a form of exclusivity far preferable to the usual niche approach of charging astronomically high prices in no way justified by commensurate quality. Luckily, orders can be placed through the website, but, needless to say, the full experience is going to the places Angela Flanders so carefully laid out as a little English Gesamtkunstwerk, the memory of which will infuse the fragrances you purchased with an added dimension.