It’s the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty’s Coronation and in the absence of an invitation to Westminster Abbey to sing a hymn and wave a flag I’ve spent the day in the company of a large brown bear. I was introduced to the bear in question a couple of months ago when the rather lovely Fiona and Owen of Dowal Walker fame invited me to Paris to become acquainted with a long dormant British perfume house called Atkinsons.
As you know I’d dug rather deep last year to discover the great British luxury goods houses still trading today for my Perfect Gent Thames & Hudson book. I must have dashed like a dervish a million times past Ferragamo on Old Bond Street en route to Cecconi’s and never even bothered to look up at No 24: a golden rule when looking for London’s history. Well, long story short I was having a watch repaired on the 4th floor of Tiffany opposite Ferragamo and was enchanted with the beauty of the building opposite.
It was a mad mix of Neo Gothic and Art Deco architecture with carved, painted and gilded heraldic motifs soaring up to the roof from which a rather incongruous spire protruded. On closer inspection I saw the name Atkinsons scrolled above the Burlington Gardens facade with the dates 1799 and 1926. I thought little more of the Atkinsons Building until that day trip to Paris with Fiona. The stories I discovered made me want to go back to The Perfect Gentleman and pen a new chapter.
Now I’ve heard a few tall tales in my time whereby brands have a handful of urban myths and lots of chutzpah that they spin together and relaunch a dodo. What the new owners of Atkinsons had was company ledgers, antique packaging, formula books and press cuttings dating back to the early 1800s that told a terribly romantic tale. 18-year old James Atkinson travelled from Cumberland to London in 1799 to seek his fortune. He took premises at 44 Gerrard Street in Soho and produced a best-seller: a rose-scented hair pomade made with bear grease.
James chained a live bear outside his Soho premises that became a mascot for the beaux and bucks of the era: none more influential than Mr Brummell. Brummell’s patronage of Atkinsons set the fashion followed by the Prince of Wales, Wellington, Byron and Nelson. We know Brummell banished the powdered wig in favour of natural, windblown heroic hair and famously didn’t wear perfume so the fact that Atkinsons didn’t try to link the Beau to its early Eau de Cologne had the ring of truth about it.
Atkinsons have the documents that prove James’s English Eau de Cologne earned him the title Perfumer to the Court of St James’s in 1832 when Prinny had become King George IV. The ledgers then record the Coronation Bouquet made for Queen Victoria in 1840 and successive private blends made for Empress Sissi of Austria, BIsmarck, Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary. There in the records were brilliant brand names such as The Odd Felllow’s Bouquet (a favourite of Lawrence of Arabia) and Fashion Decree worn by the divine Sarah Bernhardt.
I was given a preview of the new collection of fragrances on the Paris trip and asked if I’d delve deeper into the company’s past to potentially host a London launch. The 19th century history was solid gold so I wanted to find evidence that the company kept its lustre in the 20th century. I was fascinated to discover that Virginia Woolf included Atkinsons at 24 Old Bond Street in Mrs Dalloway’s whimsical shopping trip described in the eponymous novel. I also found it rather marvellous that Atkinsons was one of the first companies to employ Queen Mother of floristry Constance Spry to dress their windows.
Just as I saw echoes of Thomas Hawke (founder of Gieves & Hawkes in 1771) in the story of James Atkinson, so I drew comparisons with Savile Row in the rapid decline of once great businesses such as Atkinsons in the aftermath of World War Two. Luxury goods are an inevitable casualty of war and perfume houses such as Atkinsons couldn’t continue to trade at a comparable level when ingredients were in shorter supply than demand.
Post World War Two, Atkinsons was sold to successive licenses and the Atkinsons Bear went into hibernation. I absolutely adore being on a team when new territories are being chartered. I last had that feeling of thrill when working on Anderson & Sheppard’s new venture at No 17 Clifford Street. As you know perfume is a passion of mine but I hardly my subject for a PhD. So when Atkinsons asked me to tell their story at the London launch I was thrilled and daunted in equal measures.
We did the London presentation yesterday in the Haymarket Hotel’s Shooting Gallery over breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea sittings. I felt like I was back in Vaudeville, darling, doing three shows a day. My nerves always strike two to three weeks before a presentation but come the day I always resort to the Judy Garland protocol: ‘plant your feet apart, put your hands on your hips and sing, goddammit’.
Without crowing like an Aesop’s Fable, I think it was all rather fun. The room looked fabulous; dressed as it was as a visual history of James Atkinson with rather fabulous installations that set the scene for each of the new perfumes – or juices as they are apparently known in the trade. You’ll be pleased to hear I laid off the juice the night before the presentation and didn’t even sink a celebratory Bellini after the last show. God forbid I’m growing up at last.