Angela Flanders, Perfumer
There is something magical about Angela Flanders‘ secret workshop. Her little room in Bethnal Green is lined with bottles full of scented oils, the contents of each one carefully inscribed in silver ink. It does not take a huge leap of imagination to see Angela as a modern-day alchemist, mixing potions and precious substances together until they are transmuted into something miraculous.
Small and neat with bright grey eyes and an inquisitive – almost academic – spirit, she could easily be transported back in time into the orbit of Spitalfield’s most famous herbalist Nicholas Culpeper. She refers to her bottles of essential oils as “my library of ingredients.” The air of Angela’s workroom – a private, experimental space – is heady with the scent of flowers, spices and resins from all over the world. If you could capture it in a bottle you could almost carry the globe in your pocket.
She surveys the bottles and vials lined up on the shelves behind her. “I don’t think you could call what I do remotely conventional or scientific, I just follow my instincts. Sometimes I spend the whole day here mixing and trying different combinations to see what happens. I always start with the base notes because an old ‘nose’ in France once told me: ‘You wouldn’t build a house from the roof down; you must always start with the foundations’. So that’s what I do”.
“I play with layering separate ingredients here in the workshop, other times I’ll carry the idea of a scent around with me for several days, wondering where to take it. Then something pops into my head – a new ingredient to add to the mix that blends and lifts. Usually those flashes are absolutely right. To be honest, I don’t know why it works, but I think it must be a happy combination of instinct, inspiration and experience.”
She smiles, “I suppose you could relate it to good food? I think it’s a little bit like that programme Ready Steady Cook where people brought a bag full of the most unlikely ingredients to the TV studio and a chef would produce something mouth-watering. Creating perfume is similar – you develop an olfactory palette.”
Angela has been based in Columbia Rd since 1985 and, appropriately, given that London’s best-loved flower market is on her doorstep, for much of that time, she has worked with scent. When she first found her premises – a former shoe shop dating from around 1850 – it had been closed up and forgotten for 25 years. “We had to get a locksmith to let us in,” she recalls, “It was in quite a state. The roof was shot and there was a terrible smell, but it was full of all its original features and I was determined to keep as much as I could. I saw it as somewhere in need of care and attention. I fell in love with it.”
One of the fascinating things about talking to people this week has been the connections. I was delighted to learn that The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings where I work, was Angela’s first port of call – nearly thirty years ago – when trying to find information about the right things to do to care for her lovely old premises
“The walls were painted a dark blue-grey and I wanted to keep it,” she explains, “I wasn’t sure what to do, but SPAB advised me to leave the paintwork alone and to simply scrub it, wash it down and then wax-polish it. So that’s exactly what I did and it brightened up beautifully.”
Initially, Angela intended to run her own decorative paint business from Columbia Rd. A graduate of Manchester School of Art, she worked in theatre design and as a costume designer at the BBC. Subsequently, she attended courses in Interior Design at the Inchbald School and at Hackney Building College and her plan was to work primarily with furniture. But remember that “terrible smell” mentioned earlier? It was finding something to remedy the problem that set Angela on the perfume trail. She began to buy and then to make her own pot pourri, using essential oils and dried flowers – and people liked what she made.
“It was something that just grew,” she says, “I suppose I loved doing it because I’d always enjoyed making things and transforming things. With the pot pourris I think I was enjoying conjuring up atmospheres for rooms – scents that might suggest the past or a mood. At first I’d go to Spitalfields Market and buy the odd box of flowers and I’d dry them out by hanging them all round this building. Then I went to Covent Garden and bought a few more things from a merchant and within a year the business had expanded so much that I was taking in van-loads of flower deliveries. It was then that I realised that I couldn’t take on any more furniture commissions, because this was clearly the right thing to do.”
The perfume business is a direct result of Angela’s early experiments with essential oils and dried flowers. “I’ve got this theory that if you are on the right path people help you and that certainly happened to me,” Angela confided.
Sometimes assistance has come out of the blue. “It was odd,” she says,“One day I was in an antiques shop and I felt myself guided, literally, to the back shelf where there was a book by a nineteenth century perfumer called Septimus Piesse. It’s mainly him holding forth on scent and his opinions and it includes some of his formulas too, one of which I have used. It has become one of my bibles.”
Although she readily admits that she is entirely self-taught, perfumes by Angela Flanders have won international acclaim. Last year, Precious One – a rich floral created to celebrate the fifth anniversary of her daughter Kate’s elegant boutique, Precious in Artillery Passage – wafted off with the award for Best New Independent Fragrance at the annual Fragrance Foundation Awards Ceremony. Known as the Fifis, this is the scent industry equivalent of the Oscars. The decision, based on a blind ‘nosing’ by eminent fragrance writers and journalists was unanimous and Angela is still clearly delighted by her success. “We didn’t for a moment think we would win, because we were up against such stiff competition. It was marvellous.”
Intriguingly, since working with scent, she has discovered that the East End has a history of perfume manufacture. Essential oil distillers Bush Boake & Allen traded from premises near Broadway Market and today, the offices of Penhaligons are situated near Artillery Passage, Spitalfields, where Angela now has a second shop just along from her daughter’s.
“There’s a strong tradition of perfume making in this part of London. In fact, historically, a lot of the scents made here were sold in the City and in the West End.” She grins ruefully. “That’s the old story, isn’t it? The West End made its money off the talents of the East End, but it’s always been true. Think of the furniture makers, the gilders and the wood carvers who worked here for generations – all of them making a living as artisan craftsmen. I like to think that’s what I do – make things.”
When Angela moved into Columbia Rd she was in the vanguard of the new wave of small artisan businesses that now make it such a destination. “The flower market had flourished for one hundred and fifty years when we arrived, but it was a very different place then. At the time, as well as me, there was Jones’ Dairy, a deli and the Fred Bare hat shop. But slowly, slowly it took off. Someone once said to me, ‘If you can run a shop in Columbia Road, you can run a shop anywhere.’ I think that’s quite right!”
Angela pauses and looks at the glittering bottles surrounding around us in her shop. The colours of the liquids range from pale greens and delicate aqua shades to the deep golden tones of the darker woody fragrances that have become an Angela Flanders signature.
After a moment she nods and continues. “I also think I’m very lucky because I don’t have to satisfy the concerns of the big companies. I can play, I can have fun and I can make very small amounts of a scent. Being tiny, you can afford to be brave! Very often perfumers are forced to work to a commercial brief and it can be difficult for them. I’m not bound by that – I can explore and I treat myself to that freedom every day. Really, I just pootle along here in Bethnal Green and it’s wonderful.”
Angela Flanders and her daughter, Kate Evans.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman
Angela Flanders, 96 Columbia Rd (Sunday only, 10am to 3pm) & 4 Artillery Passage (Monday to Friday 11am to 6.30pm)
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