Category Archives: Penhaligon’s

A Golden Reverie- Penhaligons Orange Blossom




As I may have mentioned before, I love Penhaligons. It is that expertly curated ‘Englishness’ that draws me in, puts a blanket over my knees and hands me a big mug of tea (and god knows I feel like I need that at the moment.) The impressive collection of fragrances all project a classical style, encouraged by the boutiques dark wood interiors, elegantly understated packaging and bottles stamped with the royal crest.

The more recent releases from Penhaligons have seen the perfume house reach in a more contemporary direction. Iris Prima was a particular favourite of mine; a whispered ode to the beauty of the ballet, rendered in iris and dusted leather. Tralala, currently in the spotlight, is a collaboration with Meadham Kirchhoff which I have yet to sniff, so shall remain impartial, although looking at the note listing I can hazard a guess that I won’t like it. (I’m ready to stand corrected though, of course.)

When a perfume takes a single flower as it’s name, one might assume that the scent will be soliflore in character. For this reason I’d passed Orange Blossom by on several occasions. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the note, in fact it features in one of my all time favourite perfumes; Vero Kern’s intoxicating Rubj Extrait. Here it is heady and indolic and shimmery, supported by lustful tuberose, jasmine and musks. For some reason I’d decided that Penhaligons Orange Blossom would be too safe, too classic, not very ‘me’. What I have subsequently discovered is that safe and classic are very much ‘me’ and I’m becoming less ashamed to admit it.

I love a weird scent; something that will get my imagination all fired up for the purposes of writing. But actually wearing those perfumes sometimes leaves me feeling jangled and over exposed somehow. Uncomfortable in my own fragrant skin, particularly so when I am feeling stressed. Penhaligons Orange Blossom has been my saviour over the last few weeks, one of only two perfumes that I’ve felt happy to wear. A wonderful and ever supportive friend sent it to me a few months ago and it has been growing on me ever since. An orange blossom soliflore it is certainly not, re-worked from the original of 1976 by Bertrand Duchaufour and launched as part of the 2010 Anthology collection. The resulting perfume is a complex yet extremely gentle glow of citrus, florals and musks that has genuinely won my heart.

Penhaligons website provides an extensive note listing for Orange Blossom. They include; Neroli, Violet Leaf, Bergamot, Lemon-Cedrat, Cardamom Absolute and Pink Berries as top notes; Orange Absolute, Egyptian Jasmine Absolute, Tuberose Absolute, Rose Essence, Peach Flower, and Orchid at the heart and Sandalwood, Virginian Cedar, White Musk, Vanilla in the base.

At first spritz the fragrance is sparkling and bursting with sharp greenery. Bitter sweet orange chased by green tart bergamot, bolstered by a warm spiciness from Cardamom and pepper. The effect is crystalline and full of refracted light, the scent pinging around the nose in joyous tangy abandon. At this point one might be forgiven for thinking that Orange Blossom will be a rather citrus-heavy rendition of the petite white flower, but the magic has only just started.

Soon after the initial sharpness of the opening there develops a creaminess in only the way that white, indolic blooms can be creamy. Jasmine and tuberose billow forth to fill the gaps left by exploding citrus molecules, sweetly fragrant with fuzzy pollen. Although the tuberose is most definitely present at this stage of development, it is masterfully controlled and doesn’t create the slight skank that can be associated with it. Here it is merely a white, fleshy presence that warms the scent like sun on skin. There is also a delicious peachy glow, very like Osmanthus in it’s lactonic comfort, which must come from the peach flower. This milky sweetness combined with peach and orange and jasmine is at once uplifting and embracing. The effect is like the harmonised hum of a choir, nothing shrill or discordant, just a perfect smoothness that rolls off the skin with intricately tuned balance.

There is a slightly powdered quality to Orange Blossom that feels a little bit vintage. I have previously struggled quite a lot with cosmetic notes in fragrance, it’s an association that I cannot help but make with the lipsticks and powder compacts that my grandmother used to use. I hate the term ‘old lady scent’ but unfortunately that’s what I felt. I have worked really hard to appreciate the notes that sometimes create this effect; iris, violet, roses and musks, to try and disassociate that feeling of ‘dated fragrance’ from the perfumes themselves. Some I still can’t quite handle, (Malle Lipstick Rose I’m looking at you) but others have really won me over, Vero’s Rozy and Kiki and Huitieme Art Poudre de Riz to name a few.

There is a touch of 50’s beach babe to Orange Blossom that is actually very appealing. It’s not tropical in the least but somehow has the full bodied curves of a tanned lovely in bathing suit and blonde curls. Pretty, wholesome but a little on the naughty side. As the scent reaches the final drydown the waxen quality of those indoles becomes a little more prevalent, along with gentle sandalwood and smooth vanilla that is reminiscent of wooden surfboards, buffed with wax, lying out to dry in the beach filtered sun.


On a warm bright day there seems to be no more fitting perfume that Orange Blossom. On a flat grey day there is nothing more able to conjure sunbeams than this most cheerful of fragrances. It would be a misconception to pile it among the flotsam of ‘beachy’ perfumes available on the market. It is too elegant and complex to be classed as a simple citrus either. Penhaligons and Bertrand Duchaufour have created something that is mood lifting, glowing and gently beautiful. It should have another name, something like ‘Reverie’. A daydream. Sweet, golden and never ending.



Penhaligons ‘Iris Prima’

Iris Prima

It’s no secret that I love Penhaligons. I love the quintessential englishness of the brand, I love the packaging, I love the refined and highly crafted finesse of the fragrances. I may not wear them all but one has to appreciate how well Penhaligons have preserved themselves as a perfume house of impeccable taste.

Penhaligons is my go to house for when I’m in need of ultra feminine fragrances. My two favourite floral bouquets are from Penhaligons and I think it is the old fashioned elegance of these perfumes that most satisfies me. I wear ‘Gardenia’ and ‘Lily of the Valley’, the latter being one of the most creamy and authentic lily of the valley fragrances around. I feel transported in these scents, like I’ve slipped through the mists of time into another life. They bring with them very clear imagery. Wearing ‘Iris Prima’ I experienced a very personal journey, both into my past and also a peek at a future that never happened…..

When I was a very little girl my mother took me along to a ballet class on the recommendation of a friend, who said I had potential. I don’t remember that first class, I was only three, but from that point onwards dancing was such an integral part of my life that it was like breathing. I loved to dance, ballet in particular, and I was very good at it too.

When I was about ten or eleven I went to audition for the Royal Ballet School. I think my mother was a little unsure about how I would handle it, I’d been used to going to dance festivals and winning gold medals in every category. Being young I couldn’t see what she could, that from the moment you are accepted into that world of professional dance your life becomes all about hard physical work, knock backs and triumphs and competition. I did the summer school but wasn’t given a permanent place. I was distraught but I think my mother was relieved and looking back, so am I.

For me, up until that moment dance had been all about release and the joy of movement. The thrill of dressing up and the excitement of competitions, the pride I felt in my drawer of gold medals. I realised at that audition that sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are at something, there will always be someone else just as good and perhaps more suitable. There was a physical exam where I was taken into a side room and measured, weighed, stretched and inspected. I didn’t see what could possibly be wrong with me physically, so I didn’t worry. As it turned out, I had one leg fractionally longer than the other. Also they predicted that I would be tall and perhaps a little heavy to ever make it as a professional dancer. Aged thirty I can marvel at how accurate a prediction that was. Aged ten I thought that was very, very unfair.

It is a relief to me that I didn’t have a pushy mother, because I might have gone on to audition again for another school, gotten in and then struggled throughout my teenage years with the fact that I was growing too tall and weighing ever so slightly too much. Dancers have feather light frames and whilst I would never have been considered anything but slim, I have always had the frustrating predisposition of heavy bones. It is no wonder that eating disorders are rife among dancers.

If you’d asked me before that audition what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said ‘ballerina!’ without a moment’s pause. After the audition I began to slowly turn my attention towards different types of performance and by aged sixteen I was far more interested in acting, much to the frustration of my dance teachers, only keeping up the dance classes because I enjoyed it. By aged eighteen it was time to decide. University to do art or stage school to do dance and drama. I chose art at university and hung up my pointe shoes, partly with sadness, partly with relief. I think there was always a sense that I had walked away from something I was very talented at, but which might have really screwed me up. I’m not really a half measures kind of girl, it’s all or nothing, and I know that if I’d gone off to ballet school I would have put myself through hell, perhaps to no avail. I am grateful to my mother for subtly distracting me with other choices so that I didn’t fixate on my failure. I was able to go on to enjoy ballet with only a slight twinge of regret that it wasn’t me that was centre stage.

I approach ‘Iris Prima’ with both delight and slight trepidation. A perfume inspired by time spent in the company of the English National Ballet, with iris at it’s heart. Ballet I adore and iris I do not. So how will Alberto Morillas, the perfumer behind the scent, convince me that this is more than a simple, powdery floral?……

‘Iris Prima’ steps into the rehearsal rooms in a light haze of citrusy bergamot, reminiscent of  hairspray and lemon tea. I say rehearsal room rather than the stage because for all the nice analogies I could make between the perfume and it’s performance, it is clear from the beginning that this scent is not about the excitement of the stage. It has a very quiet resonance, this is an important rehearsal where all the development and hard work happens. There is absolutely nothing like the thrill of dancing out onto a flood lit stage, the heat, the exertion, the applause…. None of that is present in ‘Iris Prima’, but that is not a criticism. It would be too easy to make a perfume about the actual performance, I am far more impressed with this perfume because of it’s intimacy.

The bergamot eases softly into the most lovely leather, which is exactly as a stockroom full of new ballet shoes smells. I can really tell that the perfumer has been to these places and intelligently interpreted the atmosphere into perfume. That leather accord is perfect. When you have a new pair of pointe shoes you don’t just put them on and off you go, they have to be broken in so that you can actually bend your feet in them. They also have to be darned to protect the satin and have their ribbons sewn in exactly the right position to support your ankles. Dancers spend hours working and moulding their shoes to their feet, bending the leather soles until they become flexible. That is what the leather in ‘Iris Prima’ smells like. New, tan leather and powdery satin being worked and flexed until it is supple.

That iris that I was so dubious about has none of the cloying powderiness that I dislike in fragrances such as Prada ‘Infusion d’Iris’. I detect a lot of jasmine as well which, along with that gorgeous tan leather and palest pink satin, bring just the perfect amount of powder without ever becoming overwhelming. ‘Iris Prima’ flits about the mirrored studio in this manner for some time and I am charmed by the effortless grace and flow of the perfume, and encouraged to lean in closer as it becomes increasingly introverted, like a dancer disappearing into that trance like state of concentration. I don’t feel that ‘Iris Prima’ represents the bodily exertion of dance, the blood, sweat and tears are hidden beneath the grace of movement and introversion of most dancers as they are learning new steps.

Vanilla and sandalwood come later in the dry down, along with resinous benzoin. This accord too so accurately portrays the rehearsal room that I am placed firmly back in the studios of my dancing days, worn wooden floorboards and bars polished with beeswax. Lying face down, panting for breath and inhaling the smell of the wood, pulling a woolen shawl around a body so tired that the floor feels as comfortable as a feather bed. This is how ‘Iris Prima’ ends on my skin, as a warm, vanillic wood with powdered satin whispering across it.

There is no spotlight and no red curtain present in ‘Iris Prima’. No adrenaline and sweat, no rapturous applause. It is most definitely all about the ballet, but the one that is performed in front of the mirror in a echoing studio. It is private, quiet and introverted, almost melancholic in it’s feather light beauty. This is not a dramatic perfume at all, but it still has a profound impact. It is touching to the point that I felt a little tearful wearing it, although that may be because it made me feel wistful for times past. This perfume I will spray onto clothes as well as skin so that it lingers just a little longer. Penhaligons and Alberto Morillas receive a standing ovation from me for the conceptual brilliance of ‘Iris Prima’, I would love to see them make a rouge tinted, show stopping performance scent as a follow up. I shall await the curtain call with a fluttering heart….

Penhaligon’s ‘Gardenia’

Penhaligon's Gardenia

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.