Life In The Arts Lane - Week 96 - The Smell of Art

Back in the Ming exhibition I rise from the floor and continue my tour. This exhibition has been a huge success - friends from America have flown over more or less just to see it.

There are times when you can get a strong whiff of how something or someone is doing. Everything has its own particular aroma and I was particularly struck by the pong of the Ming. One of the best museum membership cards in London is the one for the British Museum. With it you get a few discounts and access to the usually overfull 'friends' room, but most importantly you can waft past all the queues for the shows and just plunge straight in. For some reason I always get in a muddle at the BM finding my way to the entrance to any exhibition particularly difficult this time because it was in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery - only the second show here I think after Vikings. So I get to enjoy an inadvertent perambulation around the sundry fixed exhibits. It is amongst these regular treasures that you get your first sense of the smell of the place. It is not that it smells bad. The simple truth is that it is quite hard to define exactly what is impacting on ones nostrils. It is not body odour, though the thick mob that seemingly always hang around the Egyptian mummies always has a full and warm smell. It is not the air-conditioning, which does give a peculiar controlled artificiality to everything. It is not the weather outside, which is typical London - grey, slightly wet, cold but not freezing. The weather does make an impact but it is nebulous - intangible. The museum has a very definite and individual smell; oddly, as soon as you enter the exhibition itself that smell changes. It changes as the lights dim and the crowd alters from those who are thrilled to be visiting the museum during their stay in London and those who have come specifically to enjoy this particular show . There are crowds on both sides of the door but the inner crowd is subtly different. This one is examining in detail the description boards and poring over each item with a vampires desire to drain it of all the knowledge it has to impart. It is equally impossible to define this smell but it is palpable and distracting.

As I make my slow progress, in particular crouching down to take photographs of the underside of the red cinnabar lacquer table (this is the acid test of Chinese furniture as early pieces are totally unfinished and dry - almost dusty - below, whereas later pieces often have a lacquer finish) I stop for a moment to breath in this indefinable air. As I struggle and fail to analyse exactly what makes up this 'air of seriousness' I wonder what other smells there are in the art world.

My favourite new client has just bought a house and I am going to help him furnish it. I went round to have a first look. Lying on the floor was a heap of cardboard, because he and his girlfriend had been out shopping for saucepans. The newly emptied boxes were lying strewn all around. They had recently purchased a couple of fun objects from me at the Olympia fair - a cocktail shaker and couple of wine jugs, which were sitting on the counter in the kitchen. All around was a smell of novelty, excitement and nervous energy. The house will need a lot of work before they can move in yet the couple is full of anticipation and optimism, and that has a definite smell. Their future together, maybe even as parents etc, is all there, encapsulated in the smell of a recently opened cardboard box, new paint, and a kitchen devoid of the engrained grease of years of cooking. Not just new - fresh. It is a very appealing scent and though it will not last, it will linger in the memory.

Some smells are off-putting though. I think the smell of old upholstery and curtains can really dis-tract one's attention. Back in the old days I used to visit Christie's South Kensington on a Monday night. A group of us would gather there for the late view and afterwards share a glass of restoring wine at Luigi Malone's next door. The bar is long gone now but for many a year it was a sort of Monday night clubhouse. The rooms at Christie's were full of furniture and objects covering all the main collecting areas. Crowds gathered too and sometimes even the occasional celebrity would flit around trying to look and not be looked at. Mick Jagger and Bob Geldof were regulars. But the smell of the place was not good. The imagination ran wild and probably correctly, ranging over why the old sofas and chairs, curtains, clothes and anything involving fabric smelt so bad - of damp, dust, decay and often death. One could almost smell the relatives loading their dearly-departed's collections onto the Christie's van. Nowadays the rooms are filled less often and the buyers browse and bid online. The social gathering has gone and so has the acrid smell. I miss that smell.

Back in the Ming exhibition I rise from the floor and continue my tour. This exhibition has been a huge success - friends from America have flown over more or less just to see it. The objects are well chosen and very expressive of the short period that they illustrate - socially, politically as well as culturally. Here, I think, is the so-called smell of success. The happiness you feel when suffused with optimism. Having been inducted into something new - or better still having had one's current knowledge focused and enhanced, makes one feel good. Perhaps we all smell better when we feel better. As I leave I reflect that though smell is the least glamorous of our senses it is probably more of a driver than we think. My son Vladimir always smells something before he buys it; defining the actual smell is not important - he says it just has to smell 'right'. If I buy a chest of drawers I always sniff a drawer, which also needs to smell right - the timber has to have lost its sappiness and have the smell of old saw-cuts and dust. It is the smell that counts.

Before You Go