In the arts, smell trails distantly behind both sight and sound in terms of representation.
Somerset House’s new exhibition helps to redress the balance, charting the rise of fragrance as a fashion accessory, from the early days of François Coty, who brought perfume to the masses in the early 20th century, to the break-through of the iconic CK One in the 1990s, to the recent trend for unusual and bespoke scents (including leather, ink, pop corn and, delightfully, semen).
Rather than fill the gallery with captions and risk explaining away the mystique, we’re instead led by the nose, with each room dedicated to a different whiff: one features a bed that smells of fresh linen (or was that the semen?), another is decked out like a confession booth, with aromas of sandalwood and pine. All around are little sacks into which you’re encouraged to poke your nose to get at the obscure odour lurking within.
It’s fun to note which smells trigger memories; I was unmoved by laundry and sweat, but the plasticky scent of a stuffed animal immediately reminded me of a favourite childhood toy. The most informative section, meanwhile, is dedicated to “smell pioneers”: men and women breaking the mould by manufacturing scents inspired by things like sneakers and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney Land.
Things get a little overwhelming by the end; unlike vision, which most of us have a near-limitless tolerance for, we’re unused to being bombarded by such a wide and intense variety of smells. But this remains a bold and exciting show; you could even call it the stinking man’s exhibition.