Saturday, 21 December 2019

Portraits of a Lady: 'Perfume Stories in Conversation' at Tate Liverpool, 19.12.19

First things first...yesterday's date is pleasingly symmetrical, if not exactly palindromic like the page views tally in my last post. Yet even had it not been symmetrical - never mind palindromic - yesterday was a hugely enjoyable day, for a number of coincidences occurred and paths were crossed, in unexpected ways. And this despite the fact that my day started preternaturally early again - in darkness, no less. Who knew that mornings can be like the middle of the night in December?? Too many years spent around musicians and their unsociable body clocks has given me an aversion - nay, allergy - to any hour earlier than 8.30am.

I got up at this time as I was due to attend a talk on perfume at John Moores University, which strangely doesn't have an apostrophe. I infer that this is because the university is merely named after the distinguished businessman in question who founded the Littlewoods retail chain and football pools, rather than being in any way 'possessed' by him.

I travelled on a pleasingly fast train to Liverpool operated by Avanti, which it took me till mid-afternoon to realise is the company who took over from Virgin the other week. It only stopped at Runcorn, and then sadly at the railway station, not half way across the famous wrought iron bridge so I could have taken a better picture. The bridge has several names, including 'Ethelfleda', which is so good I wish I at least had a chicken to call it after. Next week's (albeit dead) turkey may briefly acquire this moniker instead...

Now don't laugh, but I brought my A-Z of Liverpool with me, which dates from 1990, the year when I stayed at the Adelphi Hotel (of Onedin Line fame) and had the use of a company 'pool' mobile phone the size of a brick. I'll be honest, I navigated in the end using a combination of helpful tourist signage and the blue dot on Google maps, but it felt good to have the A-Z as back up. A bit like shopping with a wicker basket.

I arrived at Albert Dock a little early, and took a quick snap of this doughnut van with its transatlantic spelling and tempting offer of candyfloss and 'slush'. That's what you get I expect if you drop your candyfloss in the Mersey. Parked a little further on was a double decker London bus offering tea and coffee; an old telephone box next to it had been repurposed as a milk and sugar station. You don't get that sort of vintage charm in Starbucks, even if they do offer milk in different fat percentages.

The talk was held upstairs at Tate Liverpool, in a section of a big gallery space screened off by a curtain - not all the way, mind, so at various points during proceedings other visitors threw us a quizzical look as they were passing in their search for Dali's Lobster Telephone. I say 'search', as I am not sure that any of the 11 lobsters Dali made is in Liverpool anymore. My mobile phone from 1990 was not far off in size if not shape, now I think of it.

So, on to the event itself: Perfume Stories in Conversation (Alchemy, Olfaction and Synaesthesia), created and hosted by Michael O'Shaughnessy. Mike is Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design & Illustration at Liverpool School of Art & Design at John Moores University. He began his talk by playing a song by Barry White(!), which proved a good ice breaker, and was at pains to point out that perfume is about so much more than the art of seduction (despite what the glossy, gold-dipped adverts would tell us). He gave us a bit of background on his own academic research and commercial art, including several high profile commissions, such as a billboard featuring his own handwriting that formed the skin of the Everyman building.


The structure remained in place for 18 months, and miraculously didn't get 'tagged' in all that time by graffiti artists, which Mike attributed to his 'inclusive' use of cursive writing, which looked a bit like graffiti to start with. He adopted a similar approach on a project for Dong Energy, a Danish company which installed 32 wind turbines in Liverpool Bay, and his billboard with the caption "This Beautiful Place" was similarly left intact. Regular readers may recall that I am a big fan of wind farms, having done a project on glue in California, some of which is used to fix rattling nacelles, as the big 'gubbins housings' at the top are called.

To seal his credentials, Mike mentioned that he had in fact swum the Mersey, which impressed us all no end. So by this point I was definitely sold on Mike's handwriting and level of fitness, and we moved onto the key premise of his event, namely a "proposition of multi-sensory experience in Art":

"We experience drawing in the same way that smell can provide a trigger for memory and sensation. Scent invites us to recount and create new stories, sharing and revealing layers of experience." 

After romping through a few surprise facts about our sense of smell, including the one about it remaining when we are asleep (something the ex-firefighter in our group was able to confirm!), Mike presented us with a selection of evocative quotes about perfume from literature. One, from Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, featured bitter almonds reminding a character in the book of the fate of unrequited love. It was a great quote, and reminded me in turn of my happily morbid teenage years engrossed in Agatha Christie novels, where death by the chemically closely related cyanide was a go-to MO. But better still, we also learnt that Mike had been commissioned to do a portrait of Marquez, whom he decided to dress as a fish, in a nod to another work by the author, in case you were wondering(!).

We had already started to discuss what scenes different scents and smells evoke in our minds, and at this point Mike passed around a blotter sprayed with Chanel Cuir de Russie. This was a rather spooky moment for me, as I had so nearly chosen Cuir de Russie as my SOTD - to the point of holding the mini in my hand for a moment or two before putting it back in the drawer - however, I ended up opting for the more public space-appropriate and sadly discontinued Guerlain Plus Que Jamais.

Mike also showed us a book he had had published on Perfume and Drawing: it comprised a series of portraits of ladies - mostly but not exclusively his niece, I think? - juxtaposed with a list of perfumes containing a particular fragrance material, followed by a literary quote. At this point Mike disclosed that A Portrait of a Lady, or PoaL as it is commonly known in the blogosphere, was his all-time favourite perfume! This happens to be the favourite of Val the Cookie Queen, who has kept me supplied with both PoaL and CdR. I have an abiding memory of Val lavishly applying PoaL in an underground car park in Augsburg, before we went into a Monochrome Set gig at a nearby club. So I guess I have a memory link between that fragrance and music and perfume friends. And although I am not sure it works on me, I am a big admirer of PoaL, which I first smelt not on skin, but sprayed on Katie Puckrik's pashmina, which she was using as the garment equivalent of a room diffuser. Another strong memory, this time linking the scent to perfume friends - and fabric!

Mike went on to tell us about workshops he had run with his art students, giving them perfumes to smell blind and seeing how they reacted and what specific associations they had with the scents. (He is a big pusher of perfume / evangelist, and I salute him for it.) We did a bit of that too and the reactions from our group to the perfume Mike had selected were all over the map, and not uniformly positive. One lady was reminded of the dentist, another had no particular associations but didn't care for it, while I could pick up fruity notes, but ones that had been spoilt or muddied by something indeterminate that might have been spices or herbs. I shan't say what the perfume was, or what it was meant to smell like, in case anyone gets the opportunity to attend one of Mike's workshops or talks, but let's just say it was pretty left field in its inspiration!

There was more...Mike mentioned a thought provoking quote by Siri Hustvedt, speaking of the artist Morandi. Oddly, I have just read The Summer Without Men by her - not to be confused with the iPhone application of the same name - and used to have a Morandi print over my bed two houses ago. I think ex-Mr Bonkers must have won custody of it. Mike also referenced Mikhail Bulgarov's Master & Margarita, which is sitting in one of my many tsundokus, as is the Marquez book indeed.

After the talk, which all of us didn't want to end(!), I repaired to the cafe with Mike and a lecturer colleague of his whose speciality is textiles and fashion, to carry on the conversation. I did take a full body photo of Mike during the talk, but he preferred this off-duty one in which he feels he comes across as more jolly. I told him that he looks a bit like my Graphic Design lecturer friend Simon - the one who lives on a narrow boat and finds room in his tiny fridge to store his perfumes - crossed with a more exuberant and charismatic version of Jeremy Corbyn. I added that Mike could give Jeremy lessons in being more animated / genial / zealous /generally 'up'. I don't suppose it would  have helped him win the election if he had also swum the Mersey, but JC definitely has a charm deficit, while Mike has it in spades. Like wind energy - and unlike perfume - charm can't readily be stored for someone else to use...

You may well ask how I came to hear of this event, and the short answer is through my indie singer songwriter friend Jessica - she of the enviably smooth and high forehead, and somewhat protracted but happily successful rose perfume quest. Jessica knows Mike, but the connection is more with a relative of hers from a long time ago. So that was another coincidence.

Anyway, I could have chatted to the pair all afternoon, but suddenly realised the time, and Mike said I would need to get a move on to stand a chance of catching my train. He had not reckoned with my ability to deploy high intensity spurts of scurrying, mind (my own version of HIIT training, if you will), and I made the train with ten minutes to spare, including a stop at a market stall to buy a pair of the cheapest and most badly made pyjamas on the planet. At £6 though you can't go wrong, even if you do end up spending more time snipping off the stray ends of cotton than sleeping.

On my way back I spied this curious sign for a 'Genting Casino'. I had no idea that 'genting' was a verb, and have a strong suspicion it has very little to do with the kind of behaviour I might consider 'gentlemanly'...

PS The concept of scent and synaesthesia took me back to the event hosted by Le Labo which I wrote up in a guest post on Cafleurbon, where they got us to feel different textiles and say which one went with a particular scent. I bet that is an exercise Mike's colleague would have been brilliant at!

A Rembrandt portrait, with bonus tantalising glimpses of M's desktop folders!


AustralianPerfumeJunkies said...

Hey There Vanessa,
What a fun way to spend an afternoon.
I can so imagine you wafting Cuir de Russie. <aybe I've even smelled you wearing it.When reading that passage it felt so right, like a pair of magnets drawn together.
Portia xx

Tara said...

Hi V
Wonderful experience all round. Mike sounds fabulous and what great taste in perfume he has. There can be no better icebreaker in the world than playing a Barry White track. Genius.
I would definitely go along if he does an event in London.

Sarah Waite said...

Gosh that looks a great way to spend a day in Liverpool! I wish I had known about it, I'd have joined you.
It's odd that you mention the Dali telephone. I went to the Tate when I was about 14/15ish and saw it at the the Surrealism exhibition, was it one of the 1st shows there? I can't even remember when it came into existence.
Anyway, it very exciting to the see the phone and the strange fire coloured cockerel that I'd been looking at in one of my Mum's art books for many years before.

Vanessa said...

Hi Portia,

It was heaps of fun, and very educational - so many nuggets to savour, and I feel inspired now to go on and read some of the books Mike referenced which have perfume quotes.

I do like Cuir de Russie a lot - I didn't mention it at the talk, but it reminds me of the smell of the back seat of those vintage white Rolls-Royce wedding cars. Not that I have ever sat in one - or even been married(!) - but am assuming I must have poked my head in one at some point in the 60s or 70s and inhaled...

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Mike is passionate about perfume - even if he is technically an academic in a completely different field - such that we fumeheads would all get on famously with him. He is a ball of energy and wants to explore the perfume connection to art, literature, or any aspect of life, really.

The Barry White intro did make me smile, I must say! And let's hope there are more events in future.

Vanessa said...

Hi Sarah,

Good to know that events in Liverpool are not too far for you, though I realise you are more east now.

Interesting to hear your memories of Tate Liverpool. I remember it having the red lobster phone a long time ago, which could well tie in with your own recollection of it. Sadly I never saw the real thing! Now I want to google that cockerel. Is there such a name as 'Ethelfred'?

Unknown said...


I haven't been here in such a long time!

Sounds like a love of perfume has taken you to some interesting places, to meet some interesting people, thanks for allowing others like me to enjoy your jaunts vicariously.

Vanessa said...

Hi Unknown,

Here to the Tate, or here to Bonkers? Do please elucidate, and let us know your name if you are happy to reveal it! ;)

Glad you enjoyed the post, and others by inference.

Undina said...

I don't know where to start...

All that time I was patiently waiting on your first alluded to on my blog and then mentioned in a later e-mail write up on the event and connection to CdR. I was sure that you were busy with holidays, so I wasn't surprised not to see anything from your blog. So, you can imagine my astonishment when today I came to your blog to look-up on something I plan to mention in one of my upcoming posts (see! Unlike most people who even never follow links to older posts in a new post, I even use Search functionality to find what you wrote years before! :) ) and discovered this post! I don't know what has happened to my subscription to your posts, I did get previous ones without a problem (though, usually the next day after you publish anything). I remember that you recently had a similar issue with my post. And taking in consideration that our blogs are on two different platforms, I don't know what to make of it :)

I just wanted to explain why I was that late this time since I wasn't even busy at work during that time. All I did was staying home sick, celebrating, being sick again, reading/writing blog posts and celebrating again. So, clearly, I had time to comment here - had I known!

Anyway, I'm here now. As always, it's hard to comment on your posts since while reading I have so many different thoughts and topics, that it's hard to keep track of those, and especially now when the commenting part is on a separate page (BTW, we need to talk about it, as well as about the comments' nesting).

But still, back to the post. Great event! It sounds like it was well worth the trip. Though, without having any connection to musicians other than being in a guitar/song "club" in my youth, I completely agree with you on life not starting before 8:30 (with 9:00 for a week day and 10:00 for weekends and holidays being even better).

I love PoaL and wear it happily from time to time, though, in my opinion, it's not a daily wear perfume.

Since when do you get a choice of milk percentage at your Starbucks? I haven't investigated it during my last visit since we either had coffee in the flat or in the nearby cafe that we liked from the previous time, but during the said previous visit Starbucks on the corner of the building where we stayed had just a single choice (I think, 1% Milk), and my friend who came from Germany mundanely agreed that it was the only way she knew it. That conversation led to me trying to explain what Half-and-half was and then learning from Wikipedia that it was an American invention. At that time Starbucks here, in the U.S., offered 3 different choices: mentioned half-and-half, 1% milk and fat-free milk. Since then they switched to having just half-and-half, which if fine with me since it was my usual choice, but which I question since more people I know prefer to "save" on those calories by using a lower fat products. But maybe they calculated that those "health-conscious" customers would be ordering fat-free lattes and paying more instead of getting Americana and adding cream. So, it would be hilarious to discover that Starbucks went into the opposite direction in your country.

I'm extremely curious about the unnamed perfume since only after knowing what it was I might be able to figure out the real reasoning behind not naming it: you "gave away" so much about that talk that I doubt there's too many surprises left if anyone decides to participate in future events, so there must be something else! ;)

Since it feels like a wrong form to publish a comment that nears in length to the original post (prompting a poor author to write another "half-post-sized" response ;) ), I'll stop here. But I want to mention that we need more pictures of Truffle! With your ability to collect coincidences and serendipity (I tried: the browser's spellcheck doesn't thin this word has a plural form), I can't believe you couldn't find a way to interweave this topic into the post somehow! ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

That must be your all-time record for a long blog post comment, hehe. You didn't need to make up for your slow discovery of the post in that way, though it was full of interesting information and observations, so thank you. ;) Though I am sorry you were repeatedly ill over the holidays...

I am not surprised you haven't been getting timely email notifications of my posts, not that I write them very often these days. I get sent a wodge of people's comments in a slew of emails some months after the post. Blogger really is a law unto itself. I don't have nested comments anymore as this way was proving easier for people to comment. But let me know if you have a better idea again?

Starbucks - and coffee shops in general over here - do offer whole milk and skim milk as a rule, or two varieties at least, with different fat %. I am never quite sure what half and half is in the USA, but associate it with condensed milk, ie something more creamy? Yes, just looked it up - it is very creamy in my terms! We don't have that option here as it would not be to British tastes.

I will tell you the name of the perfume in a PM. I did check with Mike and he doesn't feel I gave too much away about the talk generally, plus I think he does different things each time - like the workshops earlier that week. I must say I have read pretty blow-by-blow accounts of talks by perfumers in the past - bordering on transcripts in the odd case - so was using that as my yardstick, then tried to give away a bit less by comparison.

Truffle is coming up in my next post - a Christmas / New Year round up. I have not been well myself, which will also feature!