BY Shelley Klein in Opinion | 29 APR 19

An Olfactory Glimpse of Vita Sackville-West

A new perfume installation by Paul Schütze evokes the spirit of the renowned writer

BY Shelley Klein in Opinion | 29 APR 19

Ambergris, eagle wood, green cognac, hay, lentisque, neroli, oak moss, oakwood, orris, pink pepper, sandalwood, tobacco, violet leaf and yuzu. What, might you ask, could a list of ingredients such as this, produce? My mind drifts through the drenched depths of an Elizabethan forest, leans against the waxy wooden pews of an old English church, sidles down snaky green corridors. There’s something so beguiling about these esoteric materials and perplexing, too. This is apt as they have been combined to create a fragrance inspired by the English poet, novelist and garden designer, Vita Sackville-West.

Vita Sackville-West, 1924. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

VSW is a one-off perfume installation in which a vase filled with fragrance-infused cloth will be placed beneath a glass bell-jar which, when removed, will allow the onlooker an olfactory glimpse of Sackville-West. It was created for the lobby of the art deco Beaumont Hotel by the artist, composer and perfumier Paul Schütze for ‘Rebels and Rogues: Creating Bespoke Perfumes’ as part of London Craft Week (8 – 12 May). Handed a list of around 20 ‘rebels and reprobates’ (including Clara Bow, Nancy Cunard, Errol Flynn, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Tenant) for whom he might fashion a perfume, Schütze chose the gardener and writer Sackville-West, honing in on her love of travel and her androgyny – she enjoyed cross-dressing and had numerous love affairs with women including Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf, whose novel Orlando with its shape-shifting, eponymous hero/heroine was based on Vita. (Orlando opens with the line ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex’ despite the protagonist transforming into a woman half-way through the story.) Married to the English diplomat, politician and writer Harold Nicholson, Sackville-West was an inveterate nomad and was based for periods of time in both Turkey and Iran – references to which appear in VSW in the deeper, more penumbral notes of lentisque, neroli and eagle-wood, while the cognac-infused, smokier tones conjure up the half-lit underworlds of 1920s Parisian nightclubs. Yet, given the multilayered images VSW produces, it begs the question: how does perfume affect our other senses? Can our involvement with a fragrance be influenced by our surroundings, by what we see and hear while we are in the process of experiencing it?

Paul Schütze, An aesthetic prompt for VSW, 2019. Courtesy: the artist

In 2018, Schutze exhibited Without Thought at London’s Mackintosh Lane – a meditative video projection, stereo-fragrance-and-sound installation. A loop of an iridescent sea filmed from land was projected onto a screen on the wall of the gallery, although, crucially, the shore is out of shot. Instead, the water appears as a vertical plane. As a result, everything – from foreground to background – is sharply in focus, without any depth of field. The effect is disorientating, a description that could also be applied to the sound. Minimal electronica, meticulously detailed and structured, eludes any form of resolution. In the stereo mix each sound moves around; the way Schütze ‘mixed’ the fragrance was not dissimilar. He placed the terrestrial fragrance (that included notes of galbanum and vetiver) on the right-hand side of the room and the marine elements (ambergris, pepper, seaweed and yuzu) on the left; tiny fans blew each across the space so that wherever you stood, the fragrance appeared to shift in focus and intensity. The overall effect was hallucinatory, an adjective that describes much of Schütze’s work, conjuring up as it does nebulous worlds where nothing is quite what it seems. Who better, then, to distil a fragrance based on a writer whose very being centred on shifting truths? 

VSW will be on display in ‘Rebels and Rogues: Creating Bespoke Perfumes’ in the lobby of The Beaumont Hotel, London during London Craft Week: 8 – 12 May 2019. From the frieze archive: read Jennifer Higgie’s take on Paul Schütze’s sonic portrait of James Turrell’s Roden Crater in the Arizona desert.

Main image: Vita Sackville-West at Royal Ascot, 1912. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Shelley Klein is a writer who lives and works in London, UK. Her memoir The See-Through House (2020) is published by Chatto & Windus.