Getting sniffy

Kicking up a stink at Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Images

Kicking up a stink at Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Images

Our interest in Dirt isn’t just in the stuff you can see: filth can offend the nose as well as the eye.  Last Friday we kicked up a stink, with all sorts of specialists in smells. Joanna Walsh (whose Ars Moriendi appeared at Wellcome Collection in March) found herself sniffing around…

I’ve recently developed an interest in bad smells. It started when I picked up a perfume called Baudelaire at high-end department store, Le Bon Marché in Paris.

Without smelling it, I furtively asked for a sample in the full knowledge that the dirty poet might quite likely have been thrown out of the gleaming white and gold perfumery.  Not only was Baudelaire known for the daring sensuality of his filthy writing but, if you look at photos of him, you begin to wonder how often he got his suit cleaned.

The scent, I thought, must channel his famous ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ paradise (Les plus rares fleurs/Mêlant leurs odeurs/Aux vagues senteurs de l’ambre), and it certainly doesn’t smell unpleasant, but it contains a suggestion not only of the gorgeous but also of the dark, the dirty, even the sweaty: a hint of cat’s pee on not-entirely clean tweed. Within days I was addicted.

I confess Baudelaire isn’t the only dirty perfume I love. There’s also Al Oudh by l’Artisan Parfumeur which smells of armpits in Istanbul, and Sables by Annick Goutal whose tarry, sandy, salty tang is a bit like a well-worn sailing sweater cast aside in the summer heat. I admit it: I like perfumes that smell like sweat.

Why do we love dirty smells? I went along to “Odette Toilette’s” session at the Wellcome Collection feeling like an olfactory veteran: experienced and unshockable. Wearing something just a little like a black silk nurses’ uniform, with added scarlet lipstick and Heidi braids, Odette already looked like someone ready to test the limits.

She started off relatively gently: what smells dirty, what smells clean? It’s all about memory and association and is more complicated than you’d think. Some ‘clean’ fragrances imply dirtiness as they are commonly used to mask unclean smells: some dirty fragrances – like dirt itself – can smell clean, like the earth after a shower.

Then we got onto the scents: on each listener’s chair was a ratings card with a scale of 1 for clean to 7 for dirty – no right and no wrong answers.  At first we didn’t know that all the smells passed round on tester cards, which we variously identified as ‘washing up liquid’ and ‘flyspray’, were swanky perfumes. It seemed that as the scents got ‘dirtier’, they became more complex – I couldn’t believe anyone would pay top dollar for perfume #1 when they could spritz themselves with good ol’ Fairy Liquid – or maybe we became more sensitive to combinations of fragrance notes as the evening progressed and our noses became more experienced.

After scents that smelt like cedar wood – or was it otter spraint? (look it up) – and expensive leather – or was it burning rubber? – we got onto the dirtiest scent of all. It was…

…a disappointment. Or so it seemed at first: a powdery violet that smelt overpoweringly of the bottom of old lady’s handbag. Maybe its intensity indicated an ironic take designed to be worn with a kitsch vintage tea dress – but it didn’t smell dirty… until you waited… and caught a whiff of an undertone that was distinctly less cut-and-dried. This one turned out to be anti-perfumer Etat Libre d’Orange’s Putain des Palaces – and hints as the real reason we love to smell dirty. It smelt like a woman wearing a floral scent to – perhaps – mask her, erm, recent activities: the ultimate clean/dirty perfume.

Or so I thought.

Finally Odette passed round phials of an optional extra mystery fragrance which had a scent so elusive I could hardly smell it. Some scents only reveal themselves on the skin. No longer sure what smelt truly dirty, I splashed it all over to find that… it smelt like semen. Yes, it really did.  Secretions Magnifiques, again from Etat Libre d’Orange, is powdery, sour-sweet and what’s more it really lingers.

Even I have a limit – Secretions Magnifiques may be it. And sometimes it’s interesting to discover what you think is truly dirty.

Joanna Walsh blogs at Badaude. Her ‘London Walks‘ is out now from Tate Publishing.

A good death

Jean's bed

Jean's bed

Next week, Joanna Walsh’s Ars Moriendi opens at Wellcome Collection. A large-scale drawing in the Collection lobby, it will deal with the process of dying in a medicalised culture, and what our hopes for a ‘good death’ are. Here, Joanna explains how she came to deal with the subject of death and discusses the Sobell Hospice, a place where residents are allowed to create an art of their own dying.

It started when the woman living next door to me, who is in her 90s, became bedridden. She is cared for at home by her widowed son. Her bedroom shares a wall with mine and I can hear her: sometimes she watches the telly, sometimes she talks to herself, sometimes she is in pain.

She is having what most people consider to be a ‘good’ death: in her own home surrounded by her family, something many people are not lucky enough to experience. Her dying presence has necessarily become part of my life.

I began to wonder about how we expect to die in our highly medicalised culture where our choices may be constrained by hospital treatments, and whether this ties up with what we would hope for. In a culture where death is taboo and art about dying is scarce or considered morbid, there are few continuing visual traditions surrounding ‘a good death’. I investigated art from the past in the Wellcome Collection’s library and was impressed with the delicacy and beauty of the object created in response to such a dark and difficult subject.

Sobell House Hospice and its patients kindly allowed me to draw them during January and February 2011. Although it cares for patients who need more medical attention than would be possible in their own homes, Sobell allows patients, their families and friends to create their own environments, altering them as much or as little as they desire and circumstances allow. It also encourages facing dying through creativity in the form of music, art or religious contemplation. At Sobell, patients are allowed to create their own Ars Moriendi – their personal art of dying.

Music Therapy

Music Therapy

Never having been in one before, I felt pretty nervous the first time I visited the hospice and I had two meetings with staff and managers before I started to draw.

One of them told me, “You’ll get a lot of different reactions. Some of the patients will ask you why you’re here, whether a relative of yours has died, whether your parents are both still alive. Some of them will ask you whether you believe in God. Some of them will tell you to fuck off.”

I said that I really couldn’t blame them.

I started drawing in the day room – a gentle introduction to the hospice – where in-patients mix with day patients, talking, drinking tea and working on projects with an art therapist. It’s pretty free and easy. One regular was served an 11am pint of bitter and another brought his dog. After a while I noticed there was something about the banter between patients that was almost flirtatious, a little afterwards realising that this could be because so many of the older patients were probably, and sadly, recently single.

Art Therapy

Art Therapy

I spent one of my mornings in the dayroom watching a cookery class. It’s so much like any other cookery club you’d hardly credit the hospice setting until patients start comparing their experience of chemotherapy between deciding whether the icing should be chocolate or vanilla.

This easy conversation, mixing hospital stories with recipes, dogcare advice and remeniscences, is one of the great things about Sobell. The patients know that everyone is in a similar boat and no topics are off-limits.



The hospice building is circular, built around a courtyard and surrounded by a paved and planted city garden. Both the public and patients’ areas are designed to maximize light and each resident’s ground-floor room has access to the outdoors. Furniture is natural wood or nature-identical laminate. Pale floral patterns dominate the curtains and cushions. Outside it’s January but inside the thermostat is set to constant Spring.

The day room

The day room

You can follow Joanna’s work on her blog, Badaude.