Monday, 26 July 2010

Two Penhaligon's fragrances

(This picture is about as camp as Penhaligon's 'Bluebell'---see below!)

Poor old Penhaligon's. They try so hard as a fragrance outfit: elegant, retro shops, knowledgeable staff, a brand which consciously goes for a kind of old-fashioned British rattan-and-aspidistra country-house vibe, and yet despite it all every single one of their perfumes which I have ever smelled is foul.

I am sitting here with a sample of their famous 1978 'Bluebell', which is, as Turin and Sanchez comment in the only word of their review in Perfumes: the Guide, 'repellent.' The blurb tells you that it is meant to evoke the deliciously poignant scent of English bluebell woods at the beginning of May, the delicate earthiness of unfolding ferns, the shimmer of dappled light through translucent green...what it actually smells like, however, is a hyacinth-scented air-freshener in a cancer-ward. A sour-sweaty, chemical undertone mingles hideously with a cloyingly sickly floral topnote, which resembles the odour given off by those hyacinth-in-a-jar Mother's Day gifts, just after they've gone floppy and started to rot. I can imagine the poor Penhaligon's perfumer tearing out his or her hair at this and asserting that a lot of great perfumes contain a note of decay---there's a distinct, beefy whiff of mushroom skins in the citrusy Diorella, for example---but he or she would be missing the point. The smell they are trying to evoke is incredibly delicate and elusive, whereas they've bottled an absolute bruiser. It needs to be a wet smell, with a mix of humus-like and green notes. I would have started with a threefold accord based on the incense note of balsam poplar (start with benzoin), iris, and a leafy tone of your choice, aiming towards but stopping just short of the spicy-musty smell of crushed bracken or cow-parsley leaves in spring. Then hawthorn, violet, and the odd, 'wet' smell of hedione, for a cool, sappy freshness like the heart of Guerlain's 'Après L'ondée'; and finally, fleetingly, about one twentieth of the hyacinth note that Penhaligon's has actually used in 'Bluebell'.

Hmph. Things may, however, be on the up: I was assured by the very nice lad in the Covent Garden Penhaligon's the other day that the great, the trismegistos Bertrand Duchaufour has been brought in to compose some new fragrances for the company. Duchaufour is the creator of the superb 'Timbuktu' for L'Artisan Parfumeur, a smoky 'transparent wood' and one of the very few fragrances I could wear nearly every day. The assistant passed me a sample of Duchaufour's new work for Penhaligon's called 'Amaranthine', and, reader, I have it here. I'm glad to say it's better than 'Bluebell', but alas it is a world away from 'Timbuktu', probably for budgetary reasons. It's a sweet vanillic wood reminiscent of Olivia Giacobetti's brilliant 'Dzing!', but creamier, and without the latter's wonderfully odd saddlesoap and fresh putty/linseed notes; instead there is a loud floral topnote that I think is the milky-banana smell of ylang-ylang, perhaps with orange blossom in there somewhere as well. Far, far better constructed than most other Penhaligon's fragrances---Duchaufour is a genius, after all---nevertheless about the best I can say for it is that it would be good for middle-aged art teachers of both sexes, and neither.

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