Monday, 30 April 2012

Scent and Memory, Dementia and Ghosts

Imagine the aroma of roast chicken wafting into the living room, to remind you to get our of your arm chair and cook dinner, or being lured out of bed and into the kitchen, by the smell of bacon and eggs. 

Lizzie Ostrom spoke on the Today Programme (8.52 am) last week about her idea for applying the power of scent in a social care situation to reawaken appetite. According to Lizzie - @odettetoilette - one of the biggest problems of dementia is weight loss. Her innovation, Ode, is designed to stimulate appetite by releasing three mouthwatering aromas to to coincide with the user’s mealtimes. Whilst smell is often considered a luxury and the sense we could most spare, it can, as Lizzie is proving, be lifesaving.

I'd love to find out whether Victorian doctors came up with any similar inventions or wrote about smell as a combative to weight loss. It wouldn't surprise me all that much. Victorian physiologists wrote about how even thinking about a smell could trigger memories that ran along the same neural tracts as when the person had actually experienced that smell, and that since all the same physical responses were triggered, including salivation or nausea, the experience was really no different. 

Laundry smells revive memories of loved ones
Lizzie's invention inspired Anne Atkins to focus her next day's Thought for the Day (27th April) on the power of smell to trigger powerful reminiscences. She spoke for example of the potential of the scent of bluebells to bring back a memory of a lovers picnic in the woods or the aroma of a worn tshirt to conjure before us an absent loved one. For me the fragrance of Daz laundry power will always bring me close to my beloved, but now departed, nan.

But now I am talking like a Victorian Spiritualist. For seance goers, smells were imagined as a vehicle for telepathic communication between the dead and the living, acting as a bridge between the known range of human sensory experience and transcendental realms.

The Victorians were fascinated with the power of scent to stir the visual imagination, stimulating dreams and reveries, hauntings and hallucinations. Perfumes, it was widely held, bewitched the mind. They influenced dream imagery, roused the imagination and reawakened dormant memories of past scenes or surroundings. They created instant shortcuts to distant ages and exotic lands and raised the spectres of long-deceased loved ones.

This Christmas, I gave a talk at the Association of Art Historians Art History in the Pub event entitled "Scented Spectres and the Smell of Ghost", which explored Victorian ideas about the relationship between smell, memory, ghosts and visual hallucinations. Using fragrance sticks to accompany my talk and raise a few ghosts along the way, I discussed how the extraordinary immediacy and potency of smells for unleashing the visions of the mind’s eye held a particular imaginative appeal for popular Victorian writers. I recounted ghostly tales that draw upon a scientific interest in the power of scent to arouse memories and stimulate the mental faculty of visualisation. For Victorian ghost writers, unseen and intangible scents signified an almost unknowable presence hanging in the air, which altered moods and swayed emotions, endowing the ‘unseen world’ with a detectable, sensual presence.

Let's hope that through the scent of cooking, Ode, conjures only welcome ghosts and a pleasant change of mood.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Scents and Sensibility: The Fragrance of Decadence

“As perfume doth remain
In the folds where it hath lain,
So the thought of you, remaining
Deeply folded in my brain,
Will not leave me: all things leave me:
You remain.”
~Arthur Symons

The field of smell in 19th century art and literature certainly seems to be growing!  Indeed, I am meeting up with Dr. Catherine Maxwell to discuss the crossovers between my work on smell in 19th century art and her new book project on smell in 19th century literature.

Catherine is Professor of Victorian Literature in the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London and has published widely on sight, aesthetics and decadence in Victorian Literature - and has made important contributions to scholarship on Swinburne and Vernon Lee. Her book Second Sight: The Visionary Imagination in Late Victorian Literature (MUP, 2008) sounds right up my street.

Catherine is giving her inaugural lecture on Tuesday 29th May 2012 at 6.30pm at Queen Mary University on the theme of Scents and Sensibility: The Fragrance of Decadence - and her lecture will be chaired by one of the kindest, loveliest academics I have ever met - Dr. Hilary Fraser from Birkbeck's English department.

About Catherine's lecture... This lecture examines perfume in decadent writing with special reference to two male authors Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons, both of whom have a strong awareness of fragrance and present themselves as olfactifs, individuals with a refined sense of smell. Establishing the prevalence of references to scent and perfume in Wilde and Symons writing, I ask what purpose do these references serve and what do they signify? And, in answering these questions, I consider whether such references to perfume reflect the taste and use of the time, taking note of the scents liked or cultivated by both writers.

Tickets are free for the inaugural lecture - and can be booked here
Please let me know if you hear of smell-related lectures or events that you think I would be interested in!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Floral Asphyxiation - Death by Perfume

My own paper at The Society of Dix-Neuviémiste's conference on the Senses (held last week at Mary Immaculate College) explored the theme of Floral Asphyxiation in Nineteenth-Century Paintings and Literature.
In particular I examined a little known painting by the Victorian artist John Collier called The Death of Albine (1895).
The painting takes as its subject the bizarre suicide of the female protagonist of Zola’s novel, The Sin of Father Mouret (1875). In the novel, Albine, an innocent and uneducated village girl, fills her bed with flowers and suffocates, intoxicated under an intense cloud of scent.  She is heartbroken as her lover, the devout curate Père Serge Mouret has forsaken her – and returned to the cloth and his beloved idol of the Virgin Mary. In a scene of  frantic intensity, Albine plunders her beloved gardens of Paradou of all its blossoms, heaping great mounds of petals and blossoms about her room, until the bed is ‘completely buried …under hyacinths and tuberoses’ and the mattress ‘overflows on all sides’ with streams of flowers trailing to the floor.Only when the boudoir is decked with roses, violets, carnations, stocks, primroses, heliotropes and lilies - flowers of every kind - and she has sealed her tomb, cramming aromatic herbs into ‘every crack’ and ‘every hole in the door and windows’ does she arrange herself on her bed 'to die with the flowers'.
Collier’s painting has been languishing in Glasgow museums storage and had been widely thought by art historians to be lost, and known only by its reproduction in The Graphic of 1895. In its day, it was a very popular painting. It hung at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1895 alongside such well known Victorian paintings as Leighton’s Flaming June and Waterhouses’s St. Cecelia  and later in the 1890s 40% of children visiting the collection at Toynbee Hall in East London voted it their favourite painting on display!  It was through The BBC Your Paintings (Public Catalogue Fund) website that I was able to ‘rediscover’ the painting.
My talk gave a critical analysis of the painting, in the context of both the novel, 19th century interest in the physiological effects of odour upon the body for both stimulation and tranquilisation and even popular accounts from the period of women suffocating from the fragrance of flowers. As it turns out, Zola himself was one of the first to write such an account.  As a journalist for the L'Evenement Illustré, he reported in the 1860s on an unusual murder case in England, in which a woman, sleeping in a closed room, died in the night from the toxic emanations of an Oriental flower placed at her bedside.
Although I didn’t say this in my 20 minute paper, I can’t help thinking it ironic that Zola himself died of asphyxiation – from gas poisoning in his flat.
What do you notice or think about when you look at this painting? 

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Perfume Injection

Last week I spoke at the The Society of Dix-Neuviémiste's conference on The Senses, held in Limerick at Mary Immaculate College.

My paper was on Floral Asphyxiation in Victorian art and my next post will talk more about this.

A paper that particularly grabbed my attention was by Cheryl Krueger (University of Virginia) on the Uses and Abuses of Perfume.

Cheryl explored the startling accounts in American (and then British) newspapers in the 1890s about decadent, bohemian Parisian women injecting perfumes such as patchouli into the skin and even the blood stream in order to perfume the body. This is an area that I have also been exploring in recent times, and I was relieved to find that like me, she has not found much concrete evidence that such a craze existed.  Nevertheless the idea of excessive use and abuse of perfume as a solitary transgressive bedroom activity endured in the popular nineteenth-century century imagination and in literature including Edmond de Goncourt's Cherie (1884), and I would add Swinburne's Lesbia Brandon in which Lesbia 'kills herself by inches by opium and perfume.' Interestingly, we both showed Mucha's art nouveau poster for Lance Parfum Rodo as suggestive of perfume abuse - and Cheryl noted that this perfume was in fact made from ether.  Having felt a bit anxious about the fact that someone is working so close to my own area, I am now looking forward to working closely with Cheryl in the future, as there are strong crossovers between our work. Cheryl is writing a book about scent in 19th century French literature and it is interesting that a French literature scholar and a Victorian art scholar can find themselves poring over much of the same material. It is very exciting, but also a spur to action, to know that so many others are now working in the area of smell in nineteenth-century culture. Have you come across the idea of perfume injection before and if so where? Do you know anything more about Lance Parfum Rodo or of other advertising images for this scent?

Art and Perfume

Welcome to my blog about smell in Nineteenth-Century Art, and my journey towards transforming my doctoral research into an academic book, entitled Art and Perfume.

I aim to share with you my passion for my research into Perfume and Art and to hear your insights and ideas about smell in art.