I have been very interested in Penhaligon’s since I happened upon a concession stall in House of Fraser about 5 years ago. The uniform rows of glass bottles, dark wood and beautiful Victorian styling had me entranced and enchanted. I don’t think I really took a lot of notice of the contents of the bottles then, I was more fascinated with the stage they were set upon.
I really love Victoriana in all forms, particularly fiction and architecture. We lived in a Victorian terrace growing up and now I have a family of my own we live in one again. I don’t know what it is about these houses, they seem to trap memories very effectively and I have always felt like I have lived alongside all the past occupants, their whispers and scents are there, barely detectable, like a thought that doesn’t belong to me. I don’t find this in the least bit creepy, it’s not there unless I look for it.
One of the greatest fascinations I have with the Victorian period is of opulence and extravagance, laced very tightly within the many ribboned corset of constraint. Within polite, upper class society it was what one didn’t say that mattered. Simply living was such a complicated dance, so many unspoken rules and subtle nuances. Tier upon tier of hierarchy, a gossamer fine web with a black widow queen perched in the centre.
But underneath- a billowing silken splash of crimson extravagance. Lascivious decadence abound. Absolute sin. Such a contradictory world to exist in and so many extremes. There was the filthy sackcloth of poverty hung on the same washing line as crushed velvet wealth. Bare- shouldered whores and buttoned up ladies. Faeces and french lace. I cannot begin to imagine living such a dualistic life. The stench of guilt would be overwhelming.
So it is that I come back to Penhaligon’s, founded at the beginning of this era of excess. I imagined that back then people wanted fragrance to excite and arouse them, to wrap them in a cloak of mystique. So wrapped up was I in the fictions of the time that my imagination was rather over stimulated. My first experience of Penhaligon’s perfume was surprisingly disappointing. The original fragrance, Hammam Bouquet, smelt so dated that I didn’t give it a second sniff. I proceeded to think the same of all the other scents and went away feeling let down. I hadn’t caught one whiff of the intense flamboyance that I was expecting.
Move forward some years and you’ll find me again, ordering a selection of minutely perfect bottles from Penhaligon’s as a Christmas present to myself. I desperately wanted to understand these perfumes and this time around I think I have a much better handle on them. Of course they smell reserved, at first. To illustrate let me introduce you to Gardenia. First produced in 1976, this fragrance is most identifiable as a quintessentially English Victorian lady. Penhaligon’s have a strong identity which is very much in keeping with the original inspiration of founder William Penhaligon.
Gardenia is a young lady. Well bred, clear eyed and glowing with youth, she awaits her first London summer Season with breathless anticipation. The first engagement is a garden party, the first dress, a frothy spume of white petaled lace. The day is clear and mild and as she descends the stone stairs into the garden she catches the scent of magnolia blossoms in full bloom. The grass is soft and springy beneath her feet, slightly earthy from a summer shower the night before. There are waiters circling with silver trays of delicate confectionary. She chooses a wafer thin vanilla biscuit and snaps it in half to eat daintily. As she mingles and converses she grows in confidence. She knows she is beautiful. The admiring glances bring roses to her creamy cheeks and she feels a little more brave, taking from a passing tray a minuscule rhubarb tartlet and a glass of champagne, although her mother warned her not to drink. She feels so refined, her pale fingers wrapped around the bubbling glass, the many layers of her skirt shifting so gently as she moves, like apple blossoms in a breeze.
The experience is so heady and exhilarating, perhaps a little too much so. The champagne is making her head spin and she cannot catch her breath, those dainty pastries sit heavily in her tightly corseted stomach. She excuses herself to go and sit on a stone bench, where the flower beds are tumbled with white roses and foliage. There is a gentleman also sitting on the bench. A suave, well groomed man with immaculately macassared hair. She wonders if it might be inappropriate to be seen sitting next to this unknown gentleman without her chaperone, but she feels a headache starting and worries she might faint, so she sits.
It is hot in the garden now, the sun at it’s zenith. The bench is shaded but it is humid beneath the blossoms. The man inclines his head as she sits and she notices his cologne, sandalwood and soap. She takes a moment to collect herself, embarrassed at her lack of stamina, how quickly she has become overwhelmed. Breathing deeply she tries to shake off the foggy sensation. Then she is suddenly, acutely aware that she being watched. Risking a sideways glance at the man next to her she sees that he is looking at her with his brown eyes. Looking at her in such a way that she is stunned, aroused, appalled. There is more lust in his eyes than she can even fathom, his gaze the full sun against her naked skin. She blushes red roses and the jasmine scent of her fine linen petticoats is visceral. She is riveted by that gaze, terrified and shiveringly awakened to his intentions…..
The chaperone bustles over clutching glasses of iced tea and the spell is broken, his eyes slide away from hers, he bows politely and moves away. The magnolia’s roll out their fragrant petals once again and she is left open mouthed and flushed. Ripe as a peach and a little bruised. As the world spins around her the party continues, as genteel as ever, yet now she is so much more aware…..
Experiencing Gardenia is like reading your first romantic novel. It is both innocent and slightly arousing. I found myself wanting more from the development of this perfume than it could offer up. I wanted more lust, a little more licentiousness. But gardenia is a girl with only the barest idea of what it is to be a woman and that in itself is beautiful. It is a virginal white bloom of a perfume that upon it’s journey is only slightly corrupted by its lustier jasmine and tuberose counterparts.
I am so glad that I gave Penhaligon’s Gardenia another opportunity. It is exceptional in it’s innocence and restraint, something that in modern perfumery is not popular. People want sex and skank, lust and hot bodies.
Gardenia alludes and imagines but she does not yield, she is modest and refined and a little buttoned up in her white petals. There is nothing to break her open.
This is a perfume for tea parties, for summers by the lake, for the innocent and young at heart. It is so very subtle and restrained that it’s beauty may well be missed by some. I want more from this fragrance. I am impatient for it to mature into a more full bodied version of itself, which of course cannot happen. Gardenia is a still life portrait of a girl who hasn’t quite grown up.