Exhibit of Week: Fragrant smell of the ‘lovely flower’

The Phul-Nana perfume bottle and original packaging in the Scarborough Collections.
The Phul-Nana perfume bottle and original packaging in the Scarborough Collections.

It’s that time of year when we’re bombarded by adverts for perfume. Which is hardly surprising when you consider the figures involved – it’s predicted that the global perfume industry will be worth – wait for it! – $45.6 billion (and that’s definitely a ‘b’, not an ‘m’) within the next three years.

Much of that money will be spent at Christmas on celebrity-inspired scents where the name on the bottle, be it Lady Gaga, Donald Trump or the Pope (yes, they all have their own fragrances), means more than the smell in it.

Despite dying in 2011, it’s estimated that movie star Elizabeth Taylor banked almost $25m last year, much of it from her range of perfumes.

But if you’re looking for something a little more exclusive for the love of your life, why not try the 21st century version of our pictured bottle from the Scarborough Collections?

Phul-Nana – the name means ‘lovely flower’ in Hindi – is a legendary fragrance from English perfume house Grossmith. Founded in the City of London in 1835, the company built its enviable reputation on three classic fragrances – Phul-Nana, Hasu-no-Hana and Shem-el-Nessim.

Our bottle dates from, probably, the mid-to-late Victorian period, and comes complete with original packaging including an advertising leaflet the reverse of which details the various products within each range: perfumes, soap, dentifrice (‘whitens the teeth and sweetens the breath, 1/- per box’), face powder (‘hygienic, adhesive and fragrant. Yields to the complexion the soft and tender bloom of youth in handsome decorated boxes, 1/-each’), amulets (‘a fragrant safeguard against infection, 6d each’) and sachets (‘for the wardrobe, desk and cabinet, &c, 6d and 1/- each, An Invaluable Aromatic Disinfectant’).

Phul-Nana itself, we are told, is a ‘fascinating and highly concentrated Perfume… unique in permanently retaining its full and delightful aroma’.

There’s an intriguing story attached to the Grossmith name and the recent revival in its fortunes. Founder John Grossmith and his son John Lipscomb Grossmith made it dizzyingly successful in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The latter made the brand a royal favourite: Betrothal, one of the perfumes in its range, was created to commemorate the engagement of Princess Mary of Teck (later Queen Mary) to the Duke of York in 1893.

Yet by the mid 20th century, the company was on the wane, precipitated by the destruction of the London offices by German bombers in 1940s, and rationing forcing the company to abandon its usual high standards and substitute synthetics.

By 1980, Grossmith was in liquidation.

Some 25 years later, a chartered surveyor called Simon Brooke was researching his family history, and discovered he was a direct descendant of the first John Grossmith – John Lipscomb’s sister, Amelia, married a George Brooke.

Simon and his wife Amanda became increasingly fascinated by their family’s rich history. They began to buy empty bottles and advertising literature, and even a full bottle of Phul-Nana from Tasmania – bought on eBay, of course.

In 2013, he told a national newspaper: “One Sunday morning I came downstairs, The Archers was on, and I had this hare-brained idea. I said to Amanda, ‘What do you think about reviving the old family perfume house?’”

And thus began the revival of Grossmith.

The couple went to a talk at the V&A by world famous ‘nose’ (perfume designer) Roja Dove who, after hearing their story, agreed to help them. Their plan was to have him revive their original recipes after scientific analysis of old samples. But then Simon met up with another descendant of the Victorian Grossmiths who, it turned out, had a set of ledgers which included the original formulae.

Today, you can buy Phul-Nana, Hasu-no-Hana and Shem-el-Nessim from high-end perfumeries – prices start at a hefty £145.00, or thereabouts, and go up to an eye-watering £20,000-plus for the Baccarat Collection Classic Triple – the three perfumes in Baccarat crystal bottles made using original moulds from 1919, decorated in gold using patterns derived from the 19th century originals – the pattern on the Phul-Nana bottle is an updated version of that on the cardboard tube in our picture.

For more information on the history of Grossmith, visit their website: http://www.grossmithlondon.com

The Grossmith bottle is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.