Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Scent Crimes Series: No 10 - Visiting Britain's Largest Perfume Bottle Collection In Twenty Minutes Flat

Last July I went to see the Mrs French Scent Bottle Collection at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery in Preston. In what may be the most spectacular breach of chronological order in the history of Bonkers, I am only now getting round to writing up my impressions of my visit. So I have decided to file it in the Scent Crimes Series - along with "Bathroom Storage", "Confusing Stella Flankers", "Opaque Perfume Receptacles", and posts about other fragrance-related annoyances of every stripe - because I only managed to get there at 4.30pm, a derisory half an hour before closing time. You don't really need to know the reasons, but they may have involved a missed train and an upside down Google map. And in practice I only really had 20 minutes to browse and take photographs, because the museum staff started making concerted efforts to shoo people out at about 10 to 5. Twenty minutes to look round a collection of this size and importance is shameful, the museum-visiting equivalent of a supermarket sweep, but there it is.

So, some eight months later, I will endeavour to piece together what I can from the museum's information sheet, my scribbled notes (never normally intelligible much beyond that day) and a couple of dozen photos of (mostly) unidentified perfume objects!

Now the Mrs French Scent Bottle collection is not just the largest in Britain, but one of the most important in the world, and has been kept at the Harris Museum since 1964. The 2748 bottles, made from ceramic, glass, silver and other materials, date from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are on permanent display in glass cabinets, and there are also numerous sets of drawers full of additional specimens; these are kept locked but the curator will open them on request. I did get the member of staff on duty to open a drawer just so I could see what a typical one contained, before promptly asking her to close it again...

So who was Mrs French and how did she come to amass such an enormous quantity of perfume bottles? Not just scent bottles in fact - the museum has other collections of note she donated, including visiting card cases, stone eggs, mineral specimens, decorative objects made from stone, and mother of pearl gaming counters.

Idonea French was born Idonea Thomas in 1880 in a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family in Southern Ireland, and moved to Kent during the First World War. It was here that she met her husband, Charles French, whom she married in her 30s. Idonea began collecting perfume bottles at the age of 12, when she was given one by her mother. Presumably an empty one, but I cannot say for sure. Then over the next 20 years Idonea carried on acquiring bottles, and by the time she got married her collection was already quite substantial.

Following the death of her only child, who was killed in action in the Second World War at the age of 20, Idonea's hobby escalated to a new level, possibly as a direct result of losing her son. The couple spent their free time driving round the country looking for more collectables, notably perfume bottles. According to the meticulous records she kept of her purchases, Idonea never spent more than £1.10 (about £30 / $50 at today's values). Predictably, their house quickly became cluttered with cabinets, though apparently her husband banned his wife from keeping bottles in the dining room. After his death, that room was also quickly colonised!

What I haven't been able to ascertain is whether Idonea was interested in perfume itself as well as the bottles, and if so, what she might have worn.

But meanwhile, here are some close ups of the scent bottles themselves. Unfortunately the glass roof of the museum room allowed light to bounce off the glass display cases in such a way as to make taking photos very tricky. That and the time pressure, obviously, made it a rather fraught process all round! One or two of the "roof-eclipsed" photos (eg the one of Attar Bottles below) actually look a bit arty, but not enough to mitigate my frustration at the obliteration of text on the information boards in the cabinets. There are also a number of dazzling spots of light in some of the shots: contrary to appearances these are not ghostly orbs of the sort you see in "Most Haunted" ricocheting off dungeon walls, but merely a testimony to my complete ignorance of how to take photos through glass.

I have noted down the headings that correspond to the various sub-groupings of the bottles: these are partly based on function/style and partly on materials used. Whether I have correctly matched the illustrative photos to their respective bottle category is a moot point, so please allow for material inaccuracies. : - ) I suspect that that might have been a problem even if I had written up my visit the following day - it was simply too short a time in which to log what I was seeing and photograph it in any kind of systematic fashion. So I can only urge you to go along to the Harris if you are ever in the Preston area and enjoy a more orderly eyeful of this lovely collection yourselves!













In my haste I failed to capture this category on film, so here is a picture of the rather impressive museum door instead, which is at least a bit "bas relief-y", like a cameo.




I suspect that these may in fact be further examples of novelty bottles, but if I was on holiday in Mevagissey, I would be well pleased to take one of these home instead of a yard of bendy pink and white nougat or some clotted cream fudge.


Carol said...

OMG I am in love!! What a fabulous museum. So envious. AND I think the finger-ring should come back in style. Thanks for this, Bonks!

The Candy Perfume Boy said...

Wow, that's a collection to be envious of! I really love the green toilet water bottle that looks like a spiders web.

It would be interesting to know if Mrs French was a perfume lover or just a collector of bottles.

B Never too Busy to Be Beautiful used to offer a service (before they became Gorilla Perfume) where you could have any of their perfumes in a vintage perfume bottle. The price would depend on the bottle and some of them were really quirky and unique. I quite like these old bottles.

Vanessa said...

Hi Bloody Frida,

It was great, but how much greater it would have been if I had just left a bit more time to drive to the train station to get there in the first place. It was a trolley dash of a museum visit as I say!

The finger rings are pretty nifty, I agree. : - )

Vanessa said...

Hi Candy Perfume Boy,

Yes, the spider's web bottle was probably my favourite too. Shame I couldn't get a proper pic of it without some element of glare. There is very little about this collection on the Internet, so I couldn't even borrow better images from somewhere else!

I would so love to know about Mrs French's own perfume wearing history - I tried googling her, but she is really under the radar, even with an unusual Christian name like that!

That vintage perfume bottle option from BNTBTBB sounds excellent - I would be curious to know what some of the bottles looked like, though obviously the company has been Gorilla-ed since, so I don't know if there might be photos of those knocking about either?

Tara said...

Very much enjoyed this. I especially like the attar and spiral bottles. Too bad the glare made those information cards hard to read. It sounds like the collection really helped distract her when she lost her son. Collecting is great that way.

I now have an accidental collection of ornamental perfume bottles because people give them to me, knowing I like perfume. I have around 10 now (glass and ceramic).

Anonymous said...

The finger-ring bottles have a knuckle-duster lethality about them!

I never knew that such a museum existed here - wonder if I can find a reason to visit that part of the world?


Anna in Edinburgh

Olfactoria's Travels said...

Oh, how very beautiful, thanks for this post!

I hope I get there one day (although for now I have no idea where Preston is, need to look that up).

I also like Tara's accidental collection! What great friends she has!

mals86 said...

The spider's web one was my favorite too! And I quite liked the mermaid bottles.

Mrs. French's propensity for collecting Stuff reminds me of my late grandmother, the one who lived with us. She collected (deep breath): bottles of all kinds, shells, rocks, salt and pepper shakers, books from several different authors, Ideals magazines, Harlequin romances, bird figurines, fabric and sewing notions, painted china, and All Things Owl. She was particularly fond of owl lamps and Avon perfume bottles. (This is the grandmother who kept a 40-gallon crock of homemade soap that HER mother had made, circa 1962. Mom found it two years ago, buried at the back of my grandmother's pantry. Eep.)

I hope you get the chance to go back and peruse the museum contents at more leisure.

Vanessa said...

Hi tara,

Oh wow, sounds like you have the makings of a Mrs French collection right there. Just another 2738 bottles to go!

I have a few myself, indeed I had thought to do a post on them some time - that is in addition to the annoying puffer atomiser you weren't supposed to fill with EDP...

I think you are right about collecting being a comforting activity. My father's flat gradually silted up with books and magazines to the point where he was virtually entombed by them. He was a bit of a loner and used to say that the books were his friends.

I think my perfume collection definitely has some kind of therapeutic value, likewise my urge to buy wool! It is only when the whole collecting habit gets out of hand that the comforting aspect goes, and becomes a stressor instead.

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

The finger rings are fun, aren't they!

I am sure you would enjoy the museum, but in the meantime, it so happens that I am coming north to Edinburgh at Easter, and was planning to contact you to see if you might fancy a natter over coffee. If I can find your email again, that is!

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

Preston is a very average town in the North of England - so average in fact that it is regularly used as a location for focus groups to test new consumer products. Reading was the southern equivalent, as I recall from my own marketing days, and in the USA you are probably talking somewhere like Peoria, which is also "Normalville" in market research terms.

But to many of us, Preston is best known as the town commemorated in this famous advert for OXO cubes, the humour being in the ironic contrast between the wife's raunchy associations with her stay there, and Preston's rather dull reputation!


Vanessa said...

Hi mals86,

I remember the grandmother that lived with you, and I like her more and more having heard about her propensity for extreme collecting. : - ) She and Mrs French would get on famously!

My friend Clare photographs animals, especially owls, and I bet she would be curious to see an owl lamp!

Anonymous said...

Ooh, Easter in Edinburgh - bring thermals and sunscreen to cover you (in every sense of the word!) for all eventualities.

I'll send you an email to save you tracking me down!

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

Undina said...

It was an interesting reading though I'm not a fan of old bottles (or almost anything old to that matter). Though I think that a museum is a proper place for such collection and I wouldn't mind spending there some time (definitely more than 20 minutes!).

I wonder, what souvenirs had their gift shop offered?

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

I know your Scottish weather is fickle and various, so I will come prepared...

Will look out for your email!

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

I don't think I will ever get a collecting bug on the scale of Mrs French for bottles, certainly. And I am trying to stop it getting out of hand for lipsticks at the minute...: - )

I didn't get as far as the gift shop, though I have just googled it and they do definitely have one! No, I had to make a bit of a smart exit just before 5pm, and didn't have a chance to check out any other amenities!

lovethescents said...

How positively wonderful! What a great experience. I could kick myself for not having visited the Perfume Museum in Barcelona last October, but there wasn't any time. I wonder if they might have had some beautiful bottles to display as well.

Particularly love the ceramics and fingers :-)

Vanessa said...

Hi lovethescents,

There's a perfume museum in Barcelona? Wow, that would be something! I have visited a shoe museum and a hosiery museum in France, an elephant museum in Greece and a museum dedicated to miniature things in Spain, but a Perfume Museum would be the best!

Anonymous said...


I'm trying to get in touch with the blog owner.
How does one do this? I've searched the blog for a ''contact'' but to no-avail



Vanessa said...

Hi Ryan

My contact details are in the sidebar, under the "About Me" section. You do need to scroll down a bit to get there - it is about level with "Painted Glass" in this post! I will also drop you a line.

Caroline said...

Hello - I am a curator from the Harris Museum & Art Gallery and I've just read your blog entry. I'm sorry not to have read it sooner and/or known about your visit. There is an information sheet available on Mrs French's collection which I can send to any interested parties. But I'm afraid we have no idea about whether Mrs French loved perfume or scent generally. She certainly loved the bottles. We look forward to welcoming more perfume enthusiasts at the Harris in the future.

Sending all best from Preston.

Vanessa said...

Hi Caroline,

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment - it is great to hear from you and please don't worry about it being a little after the fact! I am pretty loose on chronology myself, as you will have gathered from the interval between my visit and my account of it.

Maybe we will never know whether Mrs French loved perfume, but if not, there is no denying that she more than made up for it with her passion for bottles.