Perfumed Pages: Ali Smith, “Autumn”

Thanks to my friend A., who always makes excellent book recommendations, I’ve been reading Ali Smith’s cycle of seasonal novels—Autumn (2016), Winter (2017), and Spring (2019). (I just finished Winter and I’m waiting for a copy of Spring to become available at the public library!)

In Autumn, the character Daniel Gluck, a 101-year-old former songwriter who’s nearing death, drifts into a reverie or dream populated by loved ones from his century-plus on earth. His imagined company includes:

“…the painter, the one that turned him copiously down, well, that’s life, he can even smell the scent the painter wore, Oh! de London, bright, sweet, woody, when he first knew her, then she got older and more serious and it was Rive Gauche, he can smell it too.”

I’ve never had a chance to smell Oh! de London, which seems to have been a favorite of Swinging London. It was released by Yardley (a quintessential English brand!) in 1962 and later came under the ownership of Tuvaché. I’ve read that the current version smells nothing like the original fragrance, unfortunately.

“Get it, give it. You can’t be a London girl without it.” I always enjoy coming across a vintage ad for this perfume, because the colors, the fonts, the hair and makeup styles, are all wonderful examples of this moment in 1960s style.

The model, of course, is Jean Shrimpton, one of the most famous and beautiful faces of the Sixties.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche was released in 1971 and had a very different image from the start: French, bohemian, less coy than Oh! de London. Rive Gauche’s models—here we see Linda Lamy—were confident and faced us directly. Their clothing (always YSL, of course) changed from the 60s through the 80s and beyond, and we started seeing them flirting boldly with men in cafes, or sitting at a desk in an executive office.

Rive Gauche was created by perfumers Jacques Polge and Michael Hy and is an aldehydic woody-floral packaged in a modernist striped metal tube.

In Smith’s Autumn, the fictional Daniel Gluck shares his memories of the real-life artist Pauline Boty (1938-1966) and her Pop Art paintings. I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of Boty before. I’m glad Smith has brought Boty’s path-forging compositions and tragically short life to the attention of her readers.

(You can read more about Boty in this article from the Guardian.)

Here’s one collaged canvas that Daniel describes to his young friend Elizabeth in Autumn. It’s untitled and undated.

I like the idea of one woman wearing Oh! de London in her teens and early twenties, then adopting Rive Gauche as she becomes “older and more serious.”

The only catch here is that Boty died in 1966, five years before Rive Gauche was launched. Is this a factual error? Or is Smith deliberately mixing details and individuals in Daniel’s memory? Or is Daniel thinking of another artist-lover from his younger years in London?

We don’t know what perfumes Pauline Boty really wore, but I can imagine her in Oh! de London, and I wish she’d lived long enough to wear Rive Gauche (and make more art).

I’ll keep an eye (and nose) out for any further scent references in Smith’s writing, since I plan to keep reading her work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s