A particular view from a particular spot in a particular place: a line of poplar trees, bringing with it a rush of other sensorial associations; a breeze as dry and heated as from a baker’s oven, the gentle chuck-chucking of soporific chickens, and the prickle of skin that’s likely seen too much sun for one day.
With its back tight up against the rise of the woods, and its chalky face looking out over the meadow, the Widow’s House is effortlessly photographic – or do I mean, cinematic? Every time I visit France, I take another photograph of this silent, empty dwelling, drawn to it like an illustration in a book of fairy tales that both delights and spooks.
I was sitting in the garden of a small, rustic restaurant in rural France when this photograph was taken, seated under a large tree with coloured lights threaded through its branches and drinking from a small cold glass of Pineau. The sky was pink, my camera struggling with the failing light, and so producing softness and imprecision and strange halos, and giving me this nicely illustrative result.
A different take on the old French house for this Friday’s trip in the time-machine. This image from 2009 looks like the aftermath of some terrible row or marital stand-off, when, in fact, it’s nothing of the sort, just a moment captured between two people. Seconds later, my husband and I were probably laughing at some rubbish joke (his, not mine obviously). As it stands, there is a richness of the light and shadow here, and a tension in the tableau, and a filmic vibe that puts me in mind of the paintings of Edward Hopper.
From all the way back in 2009, some reminders of a happy place, and of late summer days, and very simple pleasures, and of time, slowing.
I’m slightly torturing myself with this image, taken in some dusty French town in the late summer of 2011. I can almost feel the stored heat coming off that chalky white wall…
Taken back in the Summer of 2011, these photographs capture a very particular atmosphere of a favourite place. To create the soundtrack for these images, I’d need to combine the gentle – sometimes raucous – clucks of dusty, restless chickens coming from the farmyard next door with the buzz of a nearby cicada. I might include the whispering of the leaves in the line of poplar trees at the bottom of the hill, and the buzz of wasps, hungry for the sugars produced by the scant grapes on the old vine. Much harder to convey would be that special dry heat blowing in through the open shutters, sometimes bringing with it neat convoys of swallows, the birds circling the glass lamp before darting quickly back out of the window.
Back in April 2020, I had this to say about my decision to set up the Red’s Kingdom blog:
“If I can be said to have an ambition for this blog, it’s simply this: to build another inter-connected world of sights and sounds – however loosely connected! I’m going to be talking about projects old and new, and I’m hoping to invite some of the creative people I know and work with to feature as guest authors and artists. I’m pretty sure I’ll be talking a bit about the stuff I’m watching too and gathering in some of the writing I’ve published elsewhere. In short, this blog will seek to be a coalition of elective creative activity – mine, and other people’s. I’m very much looking forward to throwing open the door to Red’s Kingdom and inviting you to accompany me on my continuing adventures in sight and sound…”
But as it turns out, I made a mistake back then, for while it’s true Red’s Kingdom has indeed developed into ‘coalition of eclectic creative activity’, in no small part due to the wonderful contributions of the Kingdom’s many and diverse Kick-Abouters, I missed something out. When I invited visitors to the blog to accompany me on ‘my continuing adventures in sight and sound’, I should have added ‘scent’ into the mix too.
Making scented soy wax candles in my kitchen in Whitstable
Over the past year, and prior to the UK’s first lock-down, when I suspect many people’s thoughts turned to the therapeutic value of making, I’ve been developing an idea for a range of scented candles. Written down in black and white like that, I can’t help but reflect on how improbable that may sound – certainly to those who know me well, and even more so to those people who only know me from what I choose to put out on here. Are these scented candles somehow a bit uncanny, perhaps? Do they have a nasty surprise in them, an unwelcome bit of grit, or chink of razor blade? Are they somehow spooky, or kooky or fragranced bizarrely? Nope.
That said, this particular project has been an exercise in the art of conjuring, a magical act of sorts, of seeking to isolate the olfactory character of a particular place – and specific moments in that particular place – and capture them in creamy containers of soy wax.
The particular place in question is ‘The Old French House’, the rooms of which might be familiar to some on here as the settings for my various forays into long-exposure photography. Whenever I visit this old stone-walled farmhouse, I am encouraged to respond to its atmosphere, silence, privacy and space in different ways. It was here, for example, the powerful sunlight and surrounding plants worked together to produce these cyanotypes. It was here too I wrote the screenplay for the animation that gives this blog its name. It was at the big wooden table I wrote – and rewrote! – the manuscript for my children’s adventure Chimera Book 1, often working late into the night, the heat of the day leaving all the old wood of the house in sighs and creaks. It was here too, I was taken so suddenly by something as prosaic as a pool cover clogged with winter leaves.
The Old French House
In addition to all these other responses, there has always been my keen relationship to the smell of the old French house, combinations of herbs, old wood, green wood, smoke, citrus, geraniums; dry, aromatic scents, cooler botanical fragrances, and all the combinations thereof. It is what heat and time and rest smells like. It’s the fragrance of basking, of unfilled hours.
In truth, I see little difference between this project and, say, all those long-exposure photographs, in so much as I’m trying to capture something intangible. Okay, less pretentiously, I wanted to create some really lovely candles that smell like you’re on holiday, and set about doing just that through an iterative process of mixing essential oils, wick sizes and containers until I was happy with the result. My long-suffering husband was charged with walking in – and out – of rooms, to gauge the success or otherwise of each new combination, and my mum and stepdad stumped up some of the developmental costs, a family affair indeed!
With support and guidance from Whitstable’s number one florist and lifestyle guru, Jane at Graham Greener, I was able to trial the range on other people’s noses (said florist’s husband, for example!) and their feedback was great, giving me the confidence to take everything a bit further.
The eight fragrances in The Old French House range of soy wax candles.
Long story short, the candles are now stocked at Graham Greener here in Whitstable and, as of this week, The Old House Candle Company has a website and online shop. (Notice I’m missing out all the anecdotes about producing candles that a) didn’t burn or b) smelled strange. I did all those things and more). This is a small ‘cottage industry’ operation, with everything produced in small batches, and produced simply and with a minimum of fiddle – and unfortunately the candles are only available in the UK – so if you’re reading this somewhere further flung, apologies in advance.
Ultimately, my plan is to develop other ‘Old House’ ranges – for example, ‘The Old Victorian Glasshouse’ – think orange blossom and lime – so the site takes its inspiration from the romance of old spaces in general, with their worn surfaces and simple comforts, and from the following quote from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space:
“The house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”