Tucked away between Piccadilly and Leicester Square is Jerymn Street. A classy collection of smart shop fronts neighbouring the Royal Academy, Fortnum & Mason and the Ritz hotel, our historical trip this month has taken us to the playground of the elegantly moneyed, the Bertie Woosters of the world. Lined with milliners, tailors and antique collectors, the editors have followed their noses to number 89, for this street also hosts a unique piece of exhibitionary history – Floris Perfumery.
Externally the design of this royally approved perfumery’s shop, established in 1730, exhibits its well established heritage and prestigious customer base. The shop front is unmistakably old fashioned, but is perhaps better described as ‘vintage’.
It is well kept and presented: the window is made up of six glass planes, the shop sign overhead is beautifully painted gold on navy blue, and all is trimmed with tasteful floral displays.
Stepping through Floris’ glass door the customer is immediately welcomed by the smell of courtly perfumes and soaps. As one passes through the shop the scents slightly vary as you move from one collection to the next, but variations mix and mingle to create a unified scent of taste and quality.
However, unlike most visitors to this store (but familiarly for all design historians) the editors of visit1862 are most interested in the sight and not the smell which greets the customer when they walk through the door.
For the shop is fitted with a selection of cabinets which were originally used at the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace (as seen in the top right hand corner of image of the interior of the Crystal Palace below). The walls are lined with ceiling height cabinets. At hip height these wall cabinets project slightly into curved display cabinets with opening lids. In the centre of the shop are two oval shaped counters with glass-topped display cases and draws below. If we were Doctor Who himself we would be hard pressed to transport ourselves into more Victorian surroundings!
The scale and consistency of these cabinets’ design fits appropriately within Floris’s shop – but also raise questions about their position and appearance in the 1851 Exhibition. Were all the display cases used in the exhibition made by the same designer, therefore creating a sense of internal cohesion amongst the variety of the objects on show? If this is the case (no pun intended!) who designed these cabinets, why was their design chosen by the 1851 Commissioners, and who else were they designing furniture for? How did the scale of these cabinets work within the vast space of the Crystal Palace? Were these vitrines overwhelmed by the building’s glass vistas, or did they provide a point of connection, a sense of realism and comprehensibility for a visitor in a space which was otherwise totally outside of their spatial experiences?
The cabinets are made out of a rich red Spanish mahogany which surrounds panes of glass and reflective mirrors. History has securely recorded that the cabinets which were sold to Floris from the Great Exhibition were made of Spanish Mahogany – what is less certain is the amount of glass and mirror which was originally enclosed within the cabinets’ wooden frames and what has been subsequently added.
These material qualities of the cabinets raise questions of light and dark. Made entirely out of glass the Crystal Palace was a homage to light and its shadows. These cabinets however have a very different relationship with light; the red mahogany is an incredibly rich colour, to the point of approaching black. The glass fronts of the cabinets let in light and the mirrored behinds reflect light and the movement of people and objects through the space of Floris’ shop (and previously, the Great Exhibition). These cabinets therefore bring up interesting questions about how the multitude of light which was let into the Great Exhibition of 1851 was manipulated internally. What was well lit and what was not? Was natural light used to draw the eye to particular objects and how was artificial light employed?
At the back of the shop stands a cabinet with a clock centrally mounted in a semi-circular pediment above. Customers in the shop are never far from the time and a firm grasp of their present position within it – even if this is confused by the century or so lapse in the fashion of its interior decoration!
Would visitors to the 1851 Great Exhibition have been similarly constantly aware of the time while they walked through the Crystal Palace? Was time forgotten, just like geographical location, as one wandered through the world’s best design features? Or was time something to be constantly aware of, precious minutes ticking away as one moved from place to place?
Further questions about time and legacy are also raised by the small museum-like collected arranged in cabinets at the back of Floris’ shop. Objects are organised alongside small handwritten labels. The objects have been chosen to represent the history of the business and the shop – representing important and indicative moments. A similar collection of facts and images are presented on Floris’ website – suggesting that history and legacy are of prime importance to Floris and Co. and the brand image which they create.
Loyal to the 1862 International Exhibition, the editors of visit1862 have their interest raised by any hint of a discussion of legacy of exhibitionary cultures – such discussions always raising questions about the relationship between the 1851 Great Exhibition and the 1862 International Exhibition. How did the first impose on the latter and how did the younger sister try to benefit from, or distinguish itself from its highly successful predecessor?
The experience of Floris’ perfumery is therefore based on a combination of vision, spatial awareness, light, time and, of course, scent. But what can this shop’s design also reveal about the visitors’ experiences of the Great Exhibition of 1851? The functional qualities of the cabinets raise interesting questions – suggesting ways in which these cabinets could have contributed to the visitors’ experiences of the 1851 Exhibition. Built with sliding and opening doors, panels, glass tops and draws, they suggest that objects may have been taken out of the cabinets in which they were displayed. If they were, were they rearranged later, or touched by viewers while they were out of the case?
In searching for an appropriate simile to describe the sense of historical confusion created by the Floris shop, it seems best to described this space as resembling a pass-the-parcel from a children’s birthday party. The layering of historical knowledge, material and experience creates uneven layers – some layers containing sweets and others forfeits – but the sense of joy, surprise and even suspense as one waits to untangle the historical realities and fictions is continuously enjoyed regardless! Strangely, it doesn’t matter exactly which parts of the shop’s interior are original Victorian madness and which are subsequent additions and alterations. What is of greater interest are the questions about the 1851 Exhibition and subsequent International Exhibitions that this time-capsule promotes and raises.
© Helen Cresswell and Ruth Mason, 2014