Saturday, October 2, 2010

Scent and the Golden Riviera

This morning I awoke from a dream that convoluted around dahlias and bread. For the bread I have no explanation but the dahlias are another thing: for the dahlia, in this household at least, is a flower one either despises or one loves - the one finding them vulgar and the other loving their merry color. Well, standards of taste are always subject to change if not downright erosion and now the dahlia after a long banishment is acceptable - barely, but with good grace.

For me, the dahlia, together with michaelmas daisies and golden rod, announced the end of a summer that had in its time begun with walks in bluebell woods - woods that, when I look at old photographs, were really more of a sparse stand of trees, not extensive at all, surrounded by low stone walls providing shelter for, and it has to be a carpet not a few clumps, of softly fragrant blue bells. Actually getting to the bluebell woods was difficult - the farmer whose land the lane crossed was always angry at anyone from the encroaching suburbs, the same suburbs that within a few years obliterated his scrubby, cowclap-dotted fields, the bluebell woods and the centuries-old dry-stone walls, with rows of houses and lawns.

Then I just saw a man resentful of those he looked on as trespassers but now he resolves into a man scared of the ending of his way of life - his medieval farmhouse, and medieval is was if memory serves me well, within a few years to be torn down, his barns sold for hen pens and firewood and his final herd sent to the slaughter house. The picture is quite clear, but no doubt at this remove mostly manufactured, of a short, cloth-capped man straddling the right-of-way that ran across the farmyard between his house and barns, threatening us with the bobby if we didn't get off his land. Rather than use the iron turnstile to the side of his gate we'd unlatch the gate and swing on it. Far more fun to swing on a romantic five-barred gate, than sedately walk through a turnstile for the result was the same - being shouted at. Looking back there must have been many a time when the farmer was in his fields and not awaiting our onslaught, but childhood memory is not that forgiving.

The dahlia, thus, joins my grandfather's marguerites and sweet peas neither of which were grown regularly but which shine bright in my elegy-inclined memory - emblematic not only of lost times but also of regret for a quality of life gone and seemingly unregarded.

A sore disappointment to me is the way flowers, generally speaking, don't smell. I write this wreathed in the reek of lilies on the table next to me - a scent so powerful that I cannot, despite the fact that I love the flower, forget my grandmother refused to have them in the house because for her they represented death - as well they might, for she was born at a time, the latter decade of the nineteenth-century, when the dead attended their own wakes and lilies were used to mask any smell of putrefaction. Anyone not raised by Victorians will not have that association but anyone knowing me will, undoubtedly, have been told of it too many times.

Scent, in most cases, may have been bred out but color, as strident as any plastic grave ornament, has seemingly been bred in to the few species chosen by supermarket buyers. Who remembers that pinks and carnations once smelled strongly and sweetly of cloves or that roses once had the most romantic of scents, redolent of spice and silk roads, or even had the most delicately subtle coloration? I wonder, too, how we got from this to the specious promises of plug-in freshness-thru-fragrance and the smell of cinnamon brooms that meets one at the supermarket door  - a noisomeness that in its own way announces the turn of the seasons.

The Givenchy Style, a beautiful book and one, as is to be expected from an essay about one of the most subtle couturiers of the twentieth-century, that isn't saturated with crude color and from which one can almost imagine an air of L'Interdit, the perfume created with Audrey Hepburn in mind, rising from the page.

That book reintroduced me to Walter Lees, Givenchy's close friend and seemingly the model for Philip Cliffe-Musgrave in Nancy Mitford's Don't Tell Alfred - a tale of English diplomats in Paris that frequently causes me, not wishing to interrupt the soft burble from the head on the pillow next to mine, to stifle a chuckle as I await my own signal that sleep is ready for me. Not for one minute have I ever lost the childhood feeling that if only I could read one more paragraph, one more chapter .... too swiftly followed by a gentle touch on the shoulder and a declaration that coffee is ready.

I'm still occupied with Roderick Cameron and quite possibly will be so for a while. The Celt ordered me a copy of The Golden Riviera, Cameron's journey through the history and life of South of France, and a book in which scent is clearly as important as form, color and scale, to a knowledgeable plantsman.

"I hesitate to go into too much detail about the garden; amongst the more obvious sweet scented things that we planted were the handsome Carolina Magnolia grandiflora and Latin America's graceful trumpet flowered datura, also clumps of the white Hedychium conronarium from India. Among the less obvious odiferous plants, and probably the strongest smelling of them all, comes the Cestrum nocturnum, the night blooming jasmine, known romantically in the Spanish speaking countries as damas de noche. An inconspicuous shrub with tiny clusters of yellow-green flowers, it is difficult to locate the first time one comes across it in someone else's garden; it is a question of degrees of smell. At the gates we massed a collection of Australian acacia - better known here, of course, as mimosa. At Christmas time they explode in a honey-scented, yellow cloud, to be followed later by the equally sweet-smelling Coronilla glauca, indigenous to several parts of southern Europe, and which we had naturalised in the maquis under the stone pines."

Absorbing - at least to me! Christopher Petkanas described the book here as "a sometimes delightful, often unreadable" ... well, I began with the delightful and have not yet been faced with the unreadable.

Chapter two gives an account of the designing, building, the eventual sale of La Fiorentina and its gardens, and the move back to Le Clos, the house Cameron lived in whilst the big house was constructed, and whose gardens under the care of Mr Givenchy you see here.

".... to help explain the sale of Fiorentina. Left on my own, I was obliged to rent the place during the summer months and by degrees came to feel it too much of a responsibility..... As to the sale, there was another factor to be considered: my brother and his family lived in England, which meant that I was the only one to benefit from the place. Here I was hanging on to what amounted to a sizeable amount of the family capital, living in a house I no longer could really afford. I had made Fiorentina and in way it has become quite an institution, but how hampering to indulge in sentiments. Real estate on the Riviera in the late sixties was still at an enormous premium, and properties such as Fiorentina were able to command exaggerated prices. How long, one wondered, would the market hold? With these thoughts in mind, I suddenly decided to sell, and within a matter of months was lucky enough to find the ideal purchasers - Mr and Mrs Harding Lawrence. Harding, a good-looking Texan in his early fifties, is chairman of Braniff International Airlines, and Mary his wife better known as Mary Wells, a vital and alive woman, is president of Wells, Rich and Green, one of the world's leading advertising agencies. The saw the house and fell in love with it for all the right reasons, and the takeover went through in a wonderfully painless fashion. I took to the Lawrences immediately, and to make things even easier their decorator, William Baldwin, is one of my closest friends, an enchanting person, blessed with infinite tact. It could have been a difficult situation for Baldwin with myself sitting, as it were, at the gates, but he handled it with great discretion and on each visit made from New York stayed with me at the Clos ....

".... As to the house, [Le Clos] it dates from the end of the eighteenth century and is the oldest house on Cap Ferrat, or more exactly the Pointe St Hospice. It has no pretensions to architecture, but in its simplicity can lay claim to a good deal of charm, and is typical of the country: red tiled floors and white marble stairs, a Roman tiled roof, green shutters, and pinkish-ochre walls. Directly outside the front door stands the old covered-in well, once the house's only water supply. Constructionally the alterations were few. The rooms were on the small side, which meant knocking down walls and adding the extra accommodation needed ..."

"As regards the terrace and swimming pool furniture, I have purposely avoided bright colours. Living in the sun, I find one tends to avoid them, and this I feel, applies to any of the Mediterranean countries - something to do with the sharpness and quality of the light.

"The question of muted tones is also carried through to the garden, and wherever possible I have kept to a mixture of greens laid out in casual formality. Not actually occupying the house until recently, I have had years to plan the layout. As basic elements, I had the side of a hill buttressed with terraces leading down to the sea, also the stones from the ruin of an early-seventeenth-century fort to carry on with if any further construction was needed. The fort, as depicted in early drawings. looked a massive affair and was erected by Charles-Emmanuel I as a protection against piratical raids from North Africa. Judged a useless incumbrance by later generations, it was blown up in 1706 by one of Louis XIV's generals, and took two months of concentrated mining to tumble, the walls still bearing the marks where the powder blackened the stones. Along with the terraces, we also inherited some twenty magnificent olives which, judging from their size, must be at least six hundred years old. As is usual in this form of cultivation, the olives are planted in rows and are on the same level as the house, centred in a terrace about eight feet wide along which I have clumped great cushions of grey-green echium, a handsome contrast to the grey of the olives when they burst out with their blue candle-like flowers in the spring. Another feature of the garden is a walk of mandarin trees with their trunks daubed with whitewash. Under them, confined by a low border of box hedging, I have planted double rows of arums and it looks very effective when the lilies are out, their white chalices catching the light filtered through the mandarins' pointed leaves. In one place, copying the Italians, I have massed a bed of aspidistra and on the terraces to the left of the house, where the rocks begin to obtrude and the soil is thin, I have naturalized great drifts of the wild tulips from Greece and Turkey, also a collection of dwarf narcissi, a native of stony reaches of the Alpille. The steep banks behind are anchored with a solid flank of judas trees with, under them, blue drifts of anenome blanda alternating with clumps of pale iris stylosa.

"A garden is a fascinatingly mobile way of expressing oneself, and all the time new ways of presenting things occur to one. The idea, for instance, for the topiary work behind the house came to me while on a flight to Cape Town, the whole terrace, quite broad in this instance, being divided up with squares of box and in the centre of each square a tapering cone of the same plant - nothing spectacularly original but just the right accent, to my mind, at this particular point of the garden. From here stairs railed in a Chinese Chippendale design mount to a further terrace backed by cypress with an underplanting of agapanthus.

The terracing, of course, has played a major role in dictating the character of the garden. It has imposed a strict architectural setting, a frame into which I have tried to work a mixture of loose and tight plants. By varying from light to dark and changing from narrow to broad, I have been able to create an illusion of space, the garden appearing much larger than it actually is."

Quotations from The Golden Riviera by Roderick Cameron, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 1973. 

Photographs: Inside. Paris/ C. de Virieu from The Givenchy Style, text by Françoise Mohrt, Foreward by Hubert de Givenchy, The Vendome Press, New York 1998. 


  1. I'm convinced. Straight to abebooks I go, for my own copy of The Golden Riveria.

    As to dahlias, I love them unreservedly---big floppy, improbably, bright things they are. There are no ugly flowers, only flowers used in an ugly way. I even have a friend who can make a vase of gladioli look like rare orchids. And anyone with the least big of snobbery about dahlias should read Eleanor Perenyi's 'Green Thoughts'. Her chapter about the dahlia will convince even the most horticulturally refined and hard hearted among us to give the dahlia another chance. And while I'm at it, i remember a tall white one, grown in my grandparent's cutting garden, whose form and habit were so elegant that one was reminded of nothing so much as a lotus flower---an effect heightened by my grandmother's annual arrangement of a single one in a low celadon bowl...

  2. What a beautiful way to start my Sunday morning, before going for a walk in the park down the street, before making Sunday dinner (Today; Pasta, Sauce, Meatballs stuffed with capers.), before editing yesterday's portrait session, sitting here at my desk reading this delightful and fascinating writing. Thank You. I am inspired to read now a chapter in "The Gardener's Bed-Book" by Richardson Wright.

  3. Marvelous post, Blue! Absorbing from beginning to end. Everything from flowers, to Mitfords, to Rory Cameron, what more could I ask for? Thanks for a lovely wiling away of more than a few minutes this Sunday morning.

  4. Dilettante, thank you. The single white dahlia in a celadon bowl - a lovely image and of its time. We don't see that kind of subtlety any more, do we? Its a pity such refinement is gone. Perhaps it will come again.

    I shall look for the book Green Thoughts.

  5. Bruce Barone, thank you - that was a very kind thing to say. Pasta, meatballs and capers sounds wonderful. I'm a bit iffy about the sauce, if it is tomato based but in its place perhaps a little butter and parmesan. Another book recommendation - one from the Dilettante as well.

  6. Reggie, thank you. I wonder when I began calling you Reggie and not Mr Darling as formerly? The MItford book is a good read and terribly English - its hard to imagine that kind of insularity exists still. Reminded me very much of Diary of a Provincial Lady.

  7. Blue --

    I confess that I am getting a little addled about what's Cameron's doing and what came later. Perhaps when you've finished with this series, you might put up a collection of the five or ten best pictures that were solely Cameron's own work.

    It would be good to see his house as a single work.

    Best, etc.

    P.S. I must have seen this post within seconds of when it went up. So I have a day or two to go to see if I managed to snag the better copy of the book from TDED.

  8. I wonder when I began calling you Reggie and not Mr Darling as formerly?

    Probably when you had a boyhood flashback and remembered that the original "Mr. Darling" was confined for an intolerable time -- more than a chapter, as I recall -- to a dog-house, even at dinner parties!

    And then you realized that Pompey, being the sort of dog he plainly is, does not share.

    Yours, etc.

  9. The Golden Riviera is indeed a lovely book... Cameron seems to have been blessed with an abundance of taste and doubt inherited from his very alluring mother Enid.

  10. Andy, thank you. Inherited from and taught by his mother.

  11. Dahlias and dancing on the Riviera. . . it is summer yet in the blue hills!

  12. Blue --

    I got a call this afternoon from an even more ancient friend -- in his eighties, he's jumping out of helicopters to ski in South America -- who is now off to the south of France.

    I told him that if he didn't contrive to get himself onto Cameron's old place, he'd have to buy breakfast next time he was in town.

    (He's vaguely hopeful that his sister, some sort of Bavarian princess, will be able to square the deal, and thus save him -- perhaps -- twenty dollars.)

    ((My hopes are middling high.))