An olfactory excursion, part 1: Uncle Ernie

Notebook: 31 January 2018 | SMELL

Forgive my self indulgence as I put all thoughts of editorial design temporarily to one side, close the lid on my laptop, throw open the window and sniff in the air. Today I detect an overriding but comforting smell of woodsmoke from a neighbouring chimney pot and a background tang of tarry smelling pig manure from a far-off farmer’s field. And every now and again I catch the delicate and ethereal fragrance of the winter-flowering Sweet Box shrub (Sarcococca Confusa) quietly doing its thing at the end of the drive. It’s a heady but rather delicious mix. It’s time now, for me to step back 36 years and more, on the first of a two-part journey about our underused sense of smell.

My great-uncle Ernest Paul was a chemist, botanist and plant hunter. He worked in Bristol at Wills tobacco and lived on the coast at Clevedon in Somerset. As a small child I remember his garden being awash with greenery and exotic plants which must have benefited from the warmth of the Gulf Stream pushing its way up the Bristol Channel.

Uncle Ernie enjoyed writing to his great nieces and nephews and one day in the late 1960s a shoe-box sized package arrived for my sister. It was carefully wrapped in brown paper and secured with string and the contents had been protected with tissue paper and straw. Uncle Ernie had an interest in perfumery and once the box had been unwrapped, it revealed its treasure: phials and small bottles, each one containing a perfume ingredient and each methodically numbered to be cross referenced to sheets of writing paper covered with Uncle Ernie’s detailed and spidery handwritten notes. There was labdanum, sandalwood, Oil of Bergamot, ambergris, olibanum, myrrh, spikenard and many other exotic sounding ingredients that Uncle Ernie had collected on his travels across Europe and the Middle East. One-by-one, my sister and myself carefully removed the stoppers and caps, gingerly sniffed the contents of each phial and found ourselves transported to far-off places. Many of the perfume ingredients had an unfamiliar but attractive and mysterious scent and a couple were deliciously intoxicating – but there was one phial that we approached with extreme caution… Uncle Ernie’s notes stated: ‘CIVET: A secretion produced by the Abyssinian Civet Cat. Concentrated it is an abominable smell but in minute quantities it gives (an aromatic) note to oversweet perfumes’ Blimey… I guess we must have unscrewed the cap, reeled back in shock and then screwed the cap tightly back on…

Uncle Ernie’s phials were returned to their box and carefully packed away in a dark place and the perfume ingredients sat sleeping and inert for the next 10 or 12 years. Then in 1980-1982 I found myself studying a graphics MA at The Royal College of Art and part of the course was the writing of a thesis on an aspect of art and design. Digging around for a topic, I remembered Uncle Ernie’s box of goodies and I was also very aware of how long forgotten aromas could drift past on the wind and trigger powerful emotions and memories inside myself and I certainly had favourite smells that reminded me of a time and place from long ago. It felt like a rich hunting ground for research and so I decided to ignore the visual arts and focus instead on our sense of smell – the most mysterious and least understood of the five senses. My thesis would touch not only on perfumery but on whether artists and designers had made use of this sense in their artwork and designs.

My great-uncle’s trove of perfume ingredients became the starting point for my thesis. My sister retrieved the box from its dark hiding place and in I plunged nose first. I was surprised and delighted to discover that most of the ingredients smelt as pungent and mysterious as they had 12 years previously. And now, another 35 years on, I’ve been carefully through Uncle Ernie’s collection again and I have transcribed and catalogued his notes. In the intervening years I was probably guilty of not replacing some of the stoppers – the genie was out of the bottle and some of the precious ingredients have evaporated forever. The phial marked ‘Civet’ no longer smells of rotten meat – which is probably a good thing. The fragrance of each of the individual ingredients have mingled together and the box has take on a heady overall smell. If I was a perfumer I’d probably be able to match this combined scent to a very particular perfume but with my limited knowledge the best I can do is say that the smell of the box is musky and oriental and has something of the mystery of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue or Après L’Ondée about it.

There is one perfume ingredient in the collection that still smells astonishing. In the 1950s or 60s, Uncle Ernie must have visited the rose fields of Kazanlak in Bulgaria where they grow a very fragrant crimson rose (General Jacqueminot) which is used to produce rose oil known as Otto (or Attar) of Roses. As Ernie describes it, ‘tons of rose petals only yield a few drops of the distilled essential oil’. He came away with a small painted wooden screw-top cask (pictured below right) and within it is a tiny glass phial containing the precious oil. I unscrew the phial, sniff, gasp with delight and then quickly screw it tight again for fear of letting too many of the precious odour molecules escape. The smell is exquisite and still has the pungency of when the oil was first bottled.

I insert the phial back into the cask, return it to the box and place the box back into the cupboard.

Ernest Paul 1899-1974

Coming up soon…

An Olfactory Excursion, part 2: My RCA thesis and ‘Smelly Telly’. How the research for my RCA thesis about smell led to my final-year major design project – a three-dimensional display explaining how odour television could work