Conference Report: ‘Sense Methods: Literature, History and Embodied Experience’

This review is also featured on The Polyphony.

By Rachel Clamp

Institute of Medical Humanities, Durham University

17 June 2022

Conference mind map, courtesy of the author.

Earlier this month, I was delighted to attend the Institute of Medical Humanities symposium ‘Sense Methods: Literature, History and Embodied Experience’ at Durham University. The symposium was designed to bring together colleagues with an interest in embodied experience and the senses to reflect on methodological and theoretical approaches and to provide opportunities for future collaborations.

I should preface this post with a brief disclaimer to say that I am not a sensory scholar myself. I am a third-year PhD candidate in the history department at Durham where I work on the history of plague and plague workers in early modern England and Scotland. I am, at best, sensory-adjacent. I do, however, try to gain access to past experience through my research, and I was keen to learn more about how I could incorporate theories of embodied experience and the senses into my work. Yesterday’s symposium allowed me to think critically about what exactly we mean when we talk about past ‘experience’. What is human experience if not sensory?

Conference mind map, courtesy of the author.

The day began with a rich and thought-provoking keynote lecture from Dr William Tullett in which he argued that whilst we might have succeeded in our approach to exploring and reconstructing smells in the past, we still have much work left to do concerning smell and/of the past. He demonstrated the need for scholars to ‘re-odorise’ the past, to develop an understanding of both the presence and absence of smells and the role of smell in history, memory, and heritage. He showed how the study of historical smellscapes can enrich our understanding of the past, allowing us to ask more difficult questions and make our arguments more interesting and persuasive. He suggested that with training and practice, humanities scholars could learn to smell ‘better’ and that the more we use our noses the more we are able to bring them into historical perspectives.

The remainder of the day consisted of a series of 10-minute ‘provocations’ rather than traditional conference papers. After each provocation, we were encouraged to write down our thoughts collectively and to draw connections between our responses.

Dr Megan Girdwood shared her work on movement and kinaesthesia drawing our attention to the early-twentieth-century researchers Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson to show that the sense of movement extended far beyond the realm of conscious, deliberate motion. Having identified her partner, Anstruther-Thomson, as someone with an especially well-developed sense of kinaesthesia, Lee recorded the minute physiological responses she experienced as a result of engaging with renaissance art.

Lena Ferriday explored relationships between the body and the environment in her provocation on the pedestrian navigation of the Devon and Cornwall coastlines. She illustrated that local residents and those who worked in these spaces on a daily basis had a very different haptic relationship to those who visited the area for leisure. They possessed an embodied expertise that allowed them to walk over difficult terrain more easily, in turn allowing them to guide visitors through the landscape for a fee.

Dr Coreen McGuire investigated the ways in which we measure the senses, once again drawing our attention to the extreme diversity of individual experience. Using the example of a stethoscope, she encouraged scholars to broaden their interpretation of the senses and to look at breath and breathing as an embodied sense. She also demonstrated the importance of the objects used to measure senses for accessing hidden histories.

Paula Teixeira Moláns explored the issue of diversity of experience further by demonstrating the vast diversity of language used to describe sensory perception. She looked at the relationship between semantics and colour, showing that not all languages describe colour, and asked what meaning is left behind when we translate sensory language.

Dr Richard Bellis used the example of the eighteenth-century anatomist William Hunter to demonstrate the extent to which anatomists were required to actively engage with their senses during experiments. Hunter’s method for separating the placenta from the umbilical cord used sight, smell, touch, and even taste to better understand the processes he witnessed throughout the experiment. Once again, we returned to the issue of sensory standardisation. How did all anatomists know that they were experiencing a cadaver in the same way as their colleagues? The answer, for eighteenth century anatomists, lay in religious belief. Dr Bellis highlighted the contemporary belief that, providing an anatomist worked ‘appropriately’, the consistency of sensory experience was guaranteed by God.

Dr Fraser Riddell looked at alternative models for describing sensory experience drawing on neurodiversity studies. If we have established that sensory perception and embodied experience are both deeply unique and personal phenomena, what sensory worlds could we access with reference to neurodiverse experiences? He asked scholars to think critically about the ways in which sensory history has been shaped by neurotypical assumptions.

In reflecting on the day, was struck by the way in which the work of scholars from such a broad range of interdisciplinary backgrounds shard aurprising number of common themes. One way or another, all presentations touched on the idea of the senses as skills that one can develop rather than phenomena that simply happen to a person, of the difficult process of measuring and describing the senses, the need to expand our understanding of what we consider ‘senses’, and the importance of the senses in the construction of knowledge.

In addition, the symposium made it abundantly clear that sensory experience is deeply personal and unique. This can make the process of defining methodologies and approaches exceedingly difficult. The answer, it seems, lies in interdisciplinary research. Only through collaborative, interdisciplinary research can we access the resources, knowledge, and expertise required to tackle the complex questions that sensory studies raise and arrive closer at our collective goal of better understanding the senses and embodied experience.

Roubo and Watin: The Sweet Scent of Early Modern Varnishes

By Érika Wicky

Fig. 1: Nécessaire, wood and leather, ca 1760, 8,4 x 6 cm (closed), Grasse. Courtesy of Musée international de la parfumerie.

If the decorative arts of the eighteenth century shine so brightly, it is thanks to the innovation and mastering of techniques such as gilding and varnishing.[i] While the latter may have given surfaces the shiny appearance that was particularly desirable at the time, both were above all essential to protect wood, especially against insects. Varnishes were used not only for furniture, but also for small painted objects such as snuffboxes, fans, and boîtes à mouches or fly boxes (Fig. 1). Varnishes’ appealing visual characteristics and protective properties were marred, however, by what was generally perceived as their unpleasant smell. The recipes for some of these varnishes have been passed down to us, and with them, the possibility to retrieve their odors. Some of these recipes continue to be in use, such as the varnish described by French cabinetmaker André-Jacob Roubo in L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste in 1774 (Fig. 2), whose use remains frequent in restoration[ii] so that the same recipe is regularly remade at the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France. While current olfactory accounts of these products are much more nuanced, they do persist, which is a sign that olfactory sensitivity has certainly evolved, but also that the smell of the varnish remains a major part of the experience of its manufacture and use. What are the substances that have given varnishes such a characteristic olfactive identity through the centuries? And how has the meaning attributed to these smells evolved?

Fig. 2 : André J. Roubo, L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste, Board 11 (Paris: 1774). Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

There are a number of recipes for varnishes found in eighteenth-century texts, and all essentially contain aromatic plant resins. For instance, the varnish used by Jean Félix Watin (1773) was prepared as follows: “Two ounces of mastic in tears and half a pound of sandarac in a pint of wine spirit, when the materials are well dissolved together, incorporate four ounces of Venice turpentine.”[iii] Similarly, Roubo’s (1774) was “composed of one pint or two pounds of wine spirit, five ounces of sandarac, two ounces of mastic in tears, one ounce of gum elemi and one ounce of oil of aspic.”[iv] Essentially, the process involved Venice turpentine (the name given to the resin of Melese[v]), mastic in tears, sandarac and other more precious resins such as copal, or of lesser quality such as galipot, which were generally dissolved in alcohol (wine spirit), and then heated. This gave off such a strong and unpleasant odor that the practice was forbidden within city walls.[vi] Indeed, this smell could be significant during the process of preparation, and Jean Riffault, for example, recommended that cooking copal should be stopped when it gave off an empyreumatic or burnt smell [vii] (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Hendrik van Reede tot Drakestein, India Copal (Vateria indica L.), colored line. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Although the smell of varnish released during firing is still considered strong and dangerous today, our current perceptions seem to accord less significance overall to the smell of varnishes. For example, the sensory-aware description of a varnish recreation at the V&A mentions that the smell of lavender dominated that of turpentine.[viii] That the smell of turpentine could be camouflaged was well known in the eighteenth century, when aspic oil was often adulterated with turpentine, which was much less expensive. To ensure the quality of the aspic oil, Watin recommended approaching a soaked cloth to a fire, which dissipates the lavender oil quickly and allows the detection of the odor of any turpentine that may have been added.[ix] Since most of these raw materials were subject to adulteration, the artisans could, in fact, evaluate their quality thanks to their sense of smell. For example, according to Baudeau’s Encyclopédie méthodique (1783-4), an unpleasant smell from gum elemi (which is usually pleasant) can reveal that it was substituted with galipot.[x] The olfactory consensus here seems to rest on the fact that the artisan knew enough about the agreeable smell of gum elemi not to be tricked. Similarly, olfactory references in professional treatises, such as Roret’s guide, often rely on experience, invoking “characteristic” or “particular” odors rather than defining them by analogy, like when elemi gum is described as smelling like fennel.[xi]

Far from being a mere nuisance, the smell of the raw materials thus made it possible to identify them, in the same way that wood, whose different species were characterized by their smell, was sometimes considered when choosing materials. Odour could be so defining that, as Cheng He has shown, the concept of lacquer was long associated with a range of odorous resins rather than with a finished object.[xii] For example, objects decorated with Martin varnish [xiii] were simultaneously prized in the eighteenth century and dreaded for their bad odor. They were distinguished in particular by the use of copal, a plant resin whose use as an incense in Mexico is often mentioned in technical treatises.[xiv]

The manufacture of varnishes thus intersects with other types of olfactory knowledge. The resins used for the varnishes are found in many other recipes, in particular for perfumes. Louis Peyron’s 1986 compilation of recipes for perfumes to be burned, which had been recommended as a way to defeat the plague in the 1720s, reveals that the components of varnishes were all found in these recipes and that their strong odor was believed to have the prophylactic virtue of keeping miasmas away.[xv] The connection between varnish and perfume can be further explored in eighteenth-century perfumery treatises: in 1761, the royal perfumer proposed a “varnish” for the complexion made with sandarac spirit, whose protective and preserving virtues aligned with those of wood varnishes.[xvi]

The negative connotations associated with the smell of varnish seem to have faded with time; tear mastic was used in perfumery into the nineteenth century, [xvii] while, according to perfumer Lucile Lefranc-Gallo, gum elemi is now experiencing renewed interest in perfumery, alongside a range of spicy raw materials. The scent of varnishes produced according to eighteenth-century recipes, such as Roubo’s or Watin’s, takes us back to a time when smells had specific connotations and were part of a network of knowledge provided by olfaction, particularly with regard to the identification of materials. It is not only the sensitivity that has evolved, but also the entire olfactory culture.

 

[i] My warm thanks to Marc-André Paulin (C2RMF), Lucille Franc-Gallo and Ersy Contogouris for their advice and comments. This text forms part of the work conducted for the Marie Sklodowska-Curie research project PaintOdor (845788).

[ii] Nathalie Balcar, Frédéric Leblanc et Marc-André Paulin, “La protection de surface pour les meubles en marqueterie de métal du musée du Louvre : étude d’un vernis, entre formulations anciennes et expérimentations actuelles,” Technè, 49 (2020).

[iii] Jean Félix Watin, L’art du peintre, doreur, vernisseur (Paris: 1773), 229. Watin claimed to have discovered the secret of an odorless varnish, but he does not give its recipe in his book.

[iv] André J. Roubo, L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste (Paris: 1774).

[v] Pierre Chomel, Abrégé de l’histoire des plantes usuelles (Paris: 1712), 190.

[vi] Watin, 224.

[vii] Jean Riffault, Manuel théorique et pratique du peintre en bâtimens, du doreur et du vernisseur (Paris: Roret, 1825), 254.

[viii] “This time, despite both ingredients being very strong smelling, the scent of the lavender oil completely overpowered that of the turpentine.” Simona Valeriani, “Recreating Sixteenth-Century Varnishes on the History of Design Course,” June 23, 2017, https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/projects/recreating-sixteenth-century-varnishes-on-the-history-of-design-course.

[ix] Watin, 202.

[x] Nicolas Baudeau, Encyclopédie méthodique (Liège: 1783-1784), 63.

[xi] Riffault, 229.

[xii] Cheng He, “Understanding the Fragrance of Lacquer in Early Modern Europe,” University of Toronto Art Journal 9.1 (2021): 68-76. https://utaj.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/utaj/article/view/36618

[xiii] Anne-Solenn Le Hô, Céline Daher, Ludovic Bellot-Gurlet, Yannick Vandenberghe, Jean Bleton, Myrtho Bonnin, Léa Drieu, Juliette Langlois, Céline Paris, Marc-André Paulin, “French lacquers of the 18th century and vernis Martin,” ICOM-CC 17th Triennial Conference, September 2014, Melbourne, Australia. hal-01279161

[xiv] Chomel, 512.

[xv] Louis Peyron, Odeurs, Parfums et parfumeurs lors des grandes épidémies méridionales de peste Arles 1721, Talk presented at the Arles Académie on March 23, 1986.

[xvi] Le parfumeur royal (Paris: 1761), 115.

[xvii] Auguste Debay, Nouveau manuel du parfumeur-chimiste (Paris: E Dentu, 1856), 37.

 

 

 

“The Smells of London” and their Sources at the Fin de Siècle

By Jess Clark

In September 1889, the London Times printed a complaint from a disturbed Kensington resident. Under the heading “Smells of London,” Arthur Clay challenged “[t]he apathy with which Londoners submit to be bathed in disgusting odours.”[i] The author complained of distressing smells blanketing North Kensington, typically at night and often in the summer. Despite his claims that Londoners didn’t care, the response to his initial letter proved otherwise; Clay’s submission set off some three years of correspondence from displeased and disgusted residents. Despite sanitary initiatives, they described nuisance smells that they ascribed to a number of different sources: polluted waterways, dirty streets, blocked drains, poor ventilation. Contrasting official messages about the efficiency of London’s orderly modern infrastructures, correspondents instead foregrounded olfactory disorder.

In this early etching, George Cruikshank criticizes the expansion of building schemes across London. “Building materials marching out of London of their own accord to build suburban housing over greenfield sites,” 1829. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

In taking to the London Times, correspondents discovered a forum to express their displeasure over London’s transforming urban smellscapes.[ii] In the wake of rapid growth and residential development, some nineteenth-century Londoners found themselves living next to chemical works and other industrialized sites. The mixing of residential and industrial space proved a recipe for Londoners’ dissatisfaction: in the lack of municipal action, in the lack of private responses, in the horrible stenches that wafted into their homes each and every night.

Indeed, if we look to letters in the Times between 1889 and 1891, many Kensington residents were deeply upset by the smell nuisances. To capture their frustration, they tapped into anxieties around smell’s “subjectiv[ity], variabi[lity], and uncertain[ty],” which had long been the source of its “social and cultural power,” in the words of Will Tullett.[iii] For some, this meant framing smells as night-time invaders of the home—a domestic sanctuary, which was supposed to be a refuge from public, daytime lives. One lady and her young ward, for instance, “both smelt the bad smell” in Eaton Place, Belgravia. She continued, “It awoke me; she was awake. It was very nasty and quite different to any other smell.”[iv] In another example, a letter writer “actually went downstairs in the belief that some part of the house was on fire.” He was not alone. “Other members of my family have had the same experiences, and not long ago searched the whole house from roof to basement for the supposed combustion going on.”[v] In a period of heightened distinction between private and public space, invisible nocturnal smells disturbed the illusion of domestic safety, as an external disorder that penetrated the sanctity of the private abode.

Other authors foregrounded the alleged health effects of these nocturnal smells, suggesting the longstanding influence of miasmatic theories of illness, which had dominated an earlier period. For one author, the smells were “like the breath of Tartarus, death-laden with horrid stenches and health-destroying fumes….” Meanwhile, the vicar of St. Matthews ominously observed “[t]he wonder is that we are alive to tell the tale.”[vi] For these authors, the stench was a disruption but moreover—it was a health hazard. “In my house, which looks across the whole of Hyde Park, the smell leaves us with headaches and sore throats,” explained another author, before demanding “what must be the effects in the narrow streets of small dwellings?”[vii]

Detail from Charles Booth’s “Life and Labour of the People in London” (1898), showing Kensington and the easterly edge of Hammersmith (including its brickfields). Courtesy of LSE Charles Booth’s London, public domain mark.

After three years of correspondence, one question remained; what comprised the horrible smells that so distressed residents of North Kensington in the late 1880s? After considerable debate, the source was allegedly identified: brickfields in neighbouring Hammersmith, which produced a “horrible and nauseous smell” each night “lasting for several hours.” This was not just any stench. Brickmakers burned refuse—garbage—to fire their bricks. What’s more, this “fuel” most likely came from the local government’s efforts to collect vestry rubbish, as part of modernizing efforts in city management. In a compelling twist, attempts to rid London of garbage – a visual nuisance –made for new and horrible smell nuisances for residents. By focusing on the unsightliness of garbage, well-meaning officials neglected a key element of urban life: its smells.

        

[i] Arthur Clay, “The Smells of London” Times (4 September 1889): 10.

[ii] See Jonathan Reinarz, “Smell and Victorian England,” in Smell and History: A Reader, ed. Mark M. Smith (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018). On the importance of public complaints in the American context, see Melanie A. Kiechle, Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).

[iii] William Tullett, “Re-Odorization, Disease, and Emotion in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 62.3 (2019): 787.

[iv] G. J. Symons et al, “The Smells of London,” The Times (10 September 1889): 6.

[v] J. E. Latton Pickering et al, “Diphtheria in London,” The Times (17 October 1890): 10.

[vi] W. Domett-Stone et al, “Offensive Smells in London,” The Times (20 October 1890): 14.

[vii] E.H. Carbutt, “Diphtheria in London,” The Times (15 October 1890): 7.

Bread and Resistance in Colonial Bengal

By Mohd. Ahmar Alvi

Among the many foods accompanying British colonizers to India, leavened bread was received differently by different communities and religious groups. Many upper-caste Hindus had revulsion not only for the bread but also for the other items coming out of bakeries introduced to the Indian culinary scene by the British. Meanwhile, Dalits –who had been marginalized by the Brahmins first by not being given jobs and second by being denied food eaten by the higher castes— accrued these bakeries as an opportunity to liberate themselves from unpaid, indentured, menial jobs, but also to ensure economic security and dignity. Muslims, a religious minority, also perceived these bakeries as a prospective source of earnings owing to their longstanding and auspicious connections to baking skills, inherited from the Mughals during their rule in past centuries.  

The aversion exhibited by upper-caste Hindus was predicated on a set of strong Brahmanical religious beliefs. In Hinduism, food can carry a plethora of diktats. It dictates your job, your social status, whether you are ‘pure’ or ‘polluted’, and whether you are entitled to enter a temple or not. The food one eats becomes the defining factor of one’s caste. One such way that upper-caste Hindus distinguish themselves from the lower ones is by denying the food touched or cooked by the lower castes. A high-caste Hindu can only accept food or drink from a person of a similar rank. If the food is prepared or touched by a lower caste person, it must be rejected.[i] Therefore, to accept bread coming from Dalits’ hands would be polluting and profaning to savarnas (caste Hindus). 

However, bhadralok (the educated ‘enlightened’ Bengali middle-class), under the strong influence of Brahmo Samaj [ii], used the consumption of bread as a means to record their resistance against casteism and to defy the taboo about crossing the seas to the West. A sizeable amount of literature—both fictional and autobiographical—written in Bengal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries documents this resistance.

Rajnarayan Basu, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For example, in his 1909 autobiography, Atmacharit (Autobiography), Rajnarayan Basu (1826-1899), a famous Brahmo[iii] leader, narrates how during his college days he often consumed bread and biscuits coming from the hands of Dalits as an emblem of progress and to mobilize resistance against casteism. When he accepted Brahmosim, he consumed bread to record his protest against casteism, because, at that time, Bengal bakeries were operated by Dalits or Muslims. He remembers his Brahmo oath-taking ceremony as:

On the day when I signed the oath (at the beginning of 1846) and received Brahmoism, I was accompanied by a couple of other adults from my village. That day, we celebrated our new religion with bread and sherry. This was to show that we did not believe in distinctions of caste or creed.[iv]

 

Bipin Chandra Pal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Likewise, Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932), in his autobiography, Sattar Bastar (Seventy Years), tells us how by consuming bread, albeit secretly, he along with his peers broke away from the shackles of casteism:

Though we would come out of the shop after buying flour of one paisa and holding it in our hands to show to the people. We would bring hot bread and biscuits inside our shirt pockets or inside our dhotis, and at the night, after our guardians slept, we would bring these out and have those. In this way, even while staying at Sylhet, my binding considerations of religion and caste were internally totally broken.[v]

 

Madhusudan Dutt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In his satirical play, Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (That’s What Civilization is all About), Madhusudhan Dutt (1824-1873) dramatizes the response of the middle-class Bengali youth toward the consumption of bread baked by Dalits. In the play, a Vaishnava[vi] man observes some youths to learn their activities. Kali, one of the youths, suggests feeding Vaishnava fowl cutlet with bread so that his life becomes meaningful.[vii] In the nineteenth century, Vaishnavas did not consume any meat or an item prepared by a lower-caste Hindu, so this represented a particularly powerful moment of resistance.

Swami Vivekananda, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Among critics, the diminishing potential of scriptural reasoning and advancing modernity in colonial Bengal meant that some detractors couched their criticism against the consumption of bread in the language of science. In 1899, Swami Vivekananda, in his essay, The East and the West, strongly opposed the consumption of bread. According to him, flour mixed with yeast became injurious to health, and he approved of the consumption of only toasted bread under special circumstances:

And as for fermented bread, it is also poison, don’t touch it at all. Flour mixed with yeast becomes injurious. Never take any fermented thing; in this respect, the prohibition in our shastras of partaking of any such article of food is a fact of great importance.[viii]

In this way, the consumption of bread was not only about sustenance, but reflected broader debates and relationships between communities and religious groups. People’s varied responses to bread thus suggest the power of food in resisting casteism in Colonial Bengal.

 

[i] For a detailed study on food and Hinduism see Pamela G. Kittler and Kathryn P. Sucher, Food and Culture. 5th ([Sydney]: Thomson Wadsworth, 2004).

[ii] This community played an important role in the genesis and development of every major religious, social, and political movement in India between 1820 and 1930. It brought about a social reformation by extending full equality to Dalits, women, and laborers, among other marginalized groups. Its members are regarded as the pioneers of liberal political consciousness and Indian nationalism. 

[iii] A believer and practitioner of the principles of Brahmo Samaj.

[iv] Rajnarayan Basu,  Atmacharit (Calcutta: Chiraya Prakasan, 1909): 44.

[v] Bipin Chandra Pal, Sattar Bastar (Calcutta: Patralakha, 1954): 92-93.

[vi] Follower of the Hindu god Vishnu and his incarnations.

[vii] Madhusudhan Dutt, Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (Calcutta: Tuli Kalam, 1860): 247.

[viii] Swami Vivekananda, “The East and the West”, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Almora: Advaita Ashram, 1954): 390-91.

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