Pot-pourri 1: Part of the fabric of an English country house.

From Knole and the Sackvilles. Vita Sackville-West 1922.

Vita Sackville-West

‘…There are other galleries, older and more austere than the Cartoon Gallery …… They have the old, musty smell which to me, whenever I met it, would bring back Knole. I suppose it is really the smell of all old houses – a mixture of woodwork, pot-pourri, leather, tapestry, and the little camphor bags which keep away the moth; …….. Bowls of lavender and dried rose-leaves stand on the window-sills; and if you stir them up you get the quintessence of the smell, a sort of dusty fragrance, sweeter in the under layers where it has held the damp of the spices. The pot pourri at Knole is always made from the recipe of a prim-looking little old lady who lived there for many years as a guest in the reigns of George I and George II.’

Pot-pourri recipe – Lady Betty Germaine, 1750.   

‘Gather dry, double violets, rose leaves, lavender, myrtle flowers, verbena, bay leaves, rosemary, balm, musk, geranium. Pick these from the stalks and dry on paper in the sun for a day or two before putting them in a jar. This should be a large white one, well glazed, with a close fitting cover………. Layer of bay salt above and below every layer of flowers. Have ready of spices, plenty of cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and pepper and lemon peel pounded. For a large jar half pound of orris-root, one ounce storax, one ounce gum benjamin, two ounces of calamino aromatico, two grs.musk, and a small quantity of oil of rhodium ………… mix all well together and spread bay salt on top to exclude air until the January or February following.’                    nb. for rose leaves read rose petals.

Lady Betty composed the Knole recipe in 1750 at the height of the fashion for pot-pourri in Europe. She was a courtier to Queen Anne and had lived at Drayton House in Northamptonshire and then moved to Knole House in Kent on widowhood where she was invited to stay through her friendship with the Sackville family .She had her own apartment in the magnificent 365 room Tudor house.

There is another reference to the pot-pourri in Orlando; A Biography, Virginia Woolf ‘s 1928 dedication to Vita and her ancestry and to Knole House, where Orlando playfully ‘….Slid along the polished planks of the gallery, the other side of which was rough timber; touched this silk, that satin, fancied the carved dolphins swam; brushed her hair with the King James’ silver brush; buried her face in the pot-pourri, which was made as the Conqueror had taught them many hundred years ago and from the same roses…..’

A more likely explanation of the origins of pot-pourri lie in the Arabic tradition of salt preserving rose petals for perfume use that were imported into Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries via Venetian traders. Another route, under Moorish influence comes from Spain.

Known more prosaically in 16th and 17th century Britain as pickled roses and sometimes referred to as sweet pot or sweet jar, it was not until a fashion took hold in the 18th century Royal Court of Louis XV where his mistress Madame de Pompadour created her own recipe, probably with the assistance of Vigier – perfumer to the King, that the French term pot-pourri crossed the Channel. She commissioned richly decorated containers for her confection from the Sevres porcelain factory. English porcelain factories; Chelsea and Derby etc., catalogued their jars and vases as pot-pourri after the French manner, although it took until the mid 19th century before the term was generally applied to the contents.

Whereas the fashion in France disappeared with the Revolution, in British country houses and cottages alike pot-pourri making remained a hobby for the fashionable lady. If a garden supplied enough rose petals she would design her own signature scent that might stay in the family for generations. She might otherwise copy one of the recipes included in the proliferation of domestic help books or she might purchase a ready made pot-pourri from an apothecary or from a perfumer. Ingredients for home made pots-pourris;  spices, resins and oils were widely available and by the 17th century grocers would attend town markets stocked with barrels of preserved rose petals, orris root powder, benzoin and musk.

I first came across the Lady Betty Germaine recipe in a 1900 publication Home and Garden by Gertrude Jeykll, the celebrated garden designer. Gertrude takes up a complete chapter on the making of pot-pourri where she gives details of her own recipe filling a fifteen gallon barrel with the finished product. She then gives mention to the Lady Betty recipe, handed to her by Vita’s mother Victoria who had commissioned Gertrude and the architect Edwin Lutyens to design properties in London and in Sussex – friendship flourished as a consequence.

Gertrude Jeykll’s nieces and gardener
preparing rose petals for pot-pourri.
Summer 1899

Gertrude would make enough pot-pourri to give to friends and  family including the Lutyens’ and her sister-in-law Agnes, whose home, Munstead House in Surrey was described as ‘the apogee of opulent comfort and order without grandeur, smelling of pot-pourri, furniture polish and wood smoke.’

The tradition of home making pot-pourri that had spanned the centuries between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II died to some extent with the demise of the English country house that had become a financial liability under crippling taxation and expense of upkeep. Opening their doors to the public has saved many historic houses yet they have lost, perhaps, their lived in character.

Apart from their lovely scent, pots-pourris have an historic feel – almost part of a ‘Merrie England’  with pastoral and hand made qualities. This perhaps was the appeal to Desmond Knox-Leet, joint founder of Diptyque, the famous Parisian perfumery. His love of ‘traditional English things that smell so good’ led to Diptyque making pot-pourri in its early days in the 1960’s. From a family recipe handed down to Dido Merwin, a friend of Desmond, Diptyque offered for sale ‘Le Redoubte de Mrs Merwin’ .

Diptyque logo designed by Desmond Knox-Leet
showing a pot-pourri jar.

Scented candles and their first eau de toilette L’eau based on an English 16th century pot-pourri and a clove pomander were added to a growing list of scented things to be sold amongst an array of charming items in their boulevard Saint-Germain shop including soft furnishings, toys and their own hand made gifts. It is for their scented candles that Diptyque are justifiably famous and whereas pot-pourri has all but disappeared from the catalogue of the perfumer, scented candles are now listed by all.

The Lady Betty Germaine pot-pourri can be sampled at Knole House, in Kent – check with the National Trust as to opening times.

Amy; a 21st century Orlando, pictured at Knole House with the Lady Betty Germaine pot-pourri.
Courtesy of the National Trust