Chintz, Tea, and Civilized Discourse

There is something to be said for homogeneity.  Most of us never achieve it.  You can’t tell, when you enter our houses, or see our gardens, or our perfume collections or for that matter our clothes, that a single, organized taste supervised the process of decorating, planting, collecting, or selecting. Generally speaking what you get is a hodge-podge, and in a minority of cases, an expression of whatever the prevailing fashion is, in homes or gardens or perfumes or clothes.

But two English ladies tend to buck this trend,  and I might as well mention them here.

The first is Jane Brocket. Her blog –  Yarnstorm – has been around for years, and if you have never seen it, you are in for a treat.  She is a crafter who loves projects from knitting to embroidery to macramé, in giddily bright colors, that manage to be not only as brilliant as baskets of ribbon candy, but moreover as English as Paddington Station.

She is also a baker who collects old cake recipes, tirelessly searching out the best one for fairy cakes, or rock buns, or apple cakes, and then passing them on to her readers. She gardens as well, and her garden beds seem to be full, once again, of shades of crimson and orange and magenta so glowingly vivid that you feel as if you could eat the dahlias and roses that she, on top of everything else, photographs so wonderfully.

This is not the extent of her talents either, because she also writes about her favorite books and her favorite artists with unfailing clarity and aplomb, and the things she sees on her travels are pictured in her own inimitable style.

By now this style has fostered a number of books, but the most comprehensive one, The Gentle Art of Domesticity, is available in the States, and in it you see a woman’s world in which taste is fully integrated.  Jane is never fussy or condescending, but she insists on seeing everything in her own way, and that has made her a maven of style. She could be the Martha Stewart of England if she read less, and cared less for art, and weren’t also an expert on wine who prefers to wear Birkenstocks instead of Jimmy Choos. But as it is, she remains a bit recherché, and English, pervasively English, as English as a wet afternoon in Devon.

The second lady is Lyn Harris of Miller Harris.  She founded her perfume company at the turn of the century, and, like Jane Brocket, her activities reflect her taste which once again seems to be distinctively English.  Her bottles are printed with her own botanical designs, and she reproduces these in wall paper and tea towels, all of them a visual echo of William Morris. Her designs, like his, reflect a love of the English countryside in all its hedgerow detail.   All country sides are wonderfully detailed,  worlds within busy scampering worlds, but the English are perhaps culturally more disposed to celebrate this  leaf and root woven tapestry, than are some other societies, and it shows in their love of prints, and plants.

The Miller Harris fragrances* too, form part of the same aesthetic.  They contain a larger number of natural components than most perfumes.  Miller Harris was trained partially at Robertet, the natural perfume ingredient producers in Grasse, and her perfumes show this training off. She is not re-imagining the world around her, so much as she is letting that world enter the perfume bottles.  So you get the green jasmine wetness of flower markets in Jasmin Vert, with a little mud in its mud puddles, or the dusty, woody, slightly horse sweaty atmosphere of disused stables in L’Air de Rien, certainly one of the best celebrity fragrances ever done.

Then there is Geranium Bourbon, a personal favorite, with its clear scent of geranium, and then booze and roses and herbs.  It smells like a croquet party in late Spring, run pleasantly to seed, with the addition of cognac to the tea. But who cares? Once again, it is perfectly cohesive with other Miller Harris fragrances.  Most of them are based upon French classics but then given a more natural treatment and a twist.

Her Bal a Versailles (L’Air de Rien) is all about stables and old houses, her Vent Vert (Jasmin Vert) is all about green flowers, her Shalimar (Fleur Oriental) is all about powder and carnations and heliotrope and the incense of the original, without the chemical foofaw it has acquired over the years.  They all have a classic structure, held up with a lot of naturals, and some rusticity that makes you realize these are English products. The boiseries have all been removed, but in their place are some delicate Grinling Gibbons carvings.  Miller Harris’ perfumes, like English cooking at its best, celebrates wonderful ingredients, and leaves over sublimation and over chemication on the sideline.

What do these women have in common, styles that are modern, British, and all their own.  It’s rare to find that these days, when every third person smells like Katy Perry and looks like Kim Kardashian. You wouldn’t think that individuality and a sense of place came at such a premium, but apparently, in this world, they do.


* Miller Harris also produces teas of her own packaged in those same botanical prints and sold at her shops in London.

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