Lasting Impression: From Monet's Palette to Mine

Lasting Impression: From Monet's Palette to Mine

We sat down with Perfumer H’s Lyn Harris to discuss spending time in nature, the power of scent on the subconscious and creating a scent inspired by the painting that birthed Impressionism for Sotheby’s celebration of 150 years of the movement.
We sat down with Perfumer H’s Lyn Harris to discuss spending time in nature, the power of scent on the subconscious and creating a scent inspired by the painting that birthed Impressionism for Sotheby’s celebration of 150 years of the movement.

C laude Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant, painted in 1872 is considered the original painting of the Impressionist movement. Ahead of the London Sales of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art in March, Sotheby’s has collaborated with visionary Perfumer Lyn Harris to reinterpret the painting using notes of bergamot, neroli and sea moss to bring the work to life in a limited edition candle.

Mariko Finch: Can you describe your journey to where you are right now, and what started it all off?

Lyn Harris: My journey has been very much about the senses and that started from an early age with my grandparents. They were self-sufficient and had a smallholding in the Highlands where they grew everything; they had a flower garden; vegetable garden and my grandfather was a carpenter. I used to wake up with the smell of baking bread. My grandmother would make jams and tisanes and they had an open fire. There was never a moment when my senses weren’t alerted or preoccupied with something from nature, or something being made. It has just become part of me. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of that place. School wasn’t for me, and if you’re not academic, your creativity isn’t necessarily channelled properly.

Lyn Harris at Perfumer H, Clifford Street, London. Photograph João Sousa.

I left school quite early on, but in my summer holidays when I was fourteen, I got a job in a fragrance shop in my hometown in Yorkshire. It was the only place you could buy Chanel and Guerlain in the area, and that was my introduction to French perfumery. I was fascinated by the packaging and the certain type of person who would come into the shop. I loved how it elevated and transformed people. I found a perfume school in Paris that took me on. My teacher recognised I had a talent, and I just started to create and was writing formulas quite early on. I was a bit of an outcast because I wasn't French and had to have a translator, but it was the most incredible place, and I was like a child in a sweet shop, I loved everything about it.

"There was never a moment when my senses weren’t alerted or preoccupied with something from nature, or something being made."

How did you choose a direction to travel in creatively?

A lot of the people on the course went into marketing and evaluation because it's very hard to be a perfumer, but with the encouragement of my teacher I came back to London and eventually I was introduced to the Maubert family who owned this amazing fragrance house called Robertet in Grasse. I flew down to see them and I remember showing them this box of my ideas and they loved them. They said: “we're going to put you in with a master and you're going to work through all our house materials” So that's what I did and 25 years later I'm still with them. There were very few women in the picture, but I didn’t mind because I was so obsessed and driven, with amazing people on my journey who believed in me. I have always loved the retail side of things, which stems from that wonderful shop that served as a distraction when I was at school. I’m visual and I've always had a brand in tandem that fuels my creativity, so they exist hand-in-hand. I also consult and create fragrances for other brands.

Hand-blown bottles in the Perfumer H store. Photograph João Sousa.

How do you start to draw inspiration for creating something – a scent, an idea, a space?

My brain is constantly working on things, even when I'm asleep I'm creatively sorting through things. Particularly in that semi-conscious state when you’re waking up, those moments of real clarity that come when you're most relaxed. Ultimately, life feeds me. That comes from living in such a vibrant city, but I also travel and meet extraordinary people. Perfumer H is all working with like-minded artists and collaborators, whether it's a painter or my glassblower who does my bottles and candles, or the cabinetmaker and architect of my shops, it’s all a dialogue. Even the graphics are done by this incredible woman that I've worked with for 15 years—I'm very meticulous about the people I work with. They are now my dear friends, and part of it all. These people feed my soul.

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872. Musée Marmottan Monet.

I love art and have just finished a course on French impressionism at the Royal Academy. I was so fascinated by it, there are so many parallels with painting and perfume. I go to exhibitions all the time wherever I am in the world. Art feeds me creatively, as does history and of course, nature. I live just by the park and love the change in seasons, which I know comes from my grandparents and how they lived. It nourishes me and my work and it really is as simple as that. I don't search for the latest discovery in the Amazon, it’s about having and knowing my palette and confidence in my materials. We evolve creatively so I always have to challenge myself; I can have the same palette of 100 materials, but they give me something entirely new every time I smell them.

How do you begin to try to translate something like a painting or sound or a memory into a scent as you have done with the Monet?

Sunrise is such a breath-taking picture, and you can see Monet’s change in approach through the flurry and haste in the brushstrokes. What I love about it are the imperfections, you can feel his passion. Through his application of colour, you can sense the industrial feel of the harbour landscape. He's so immersed in this scene and wants to capture it with the sunrise and you can feel his haste to capture this moment in time. I translate the light through my citrus top notes, but it's not just citrus it’s specifically raw materials like neroli because of its brightness and bergamot for balance and harmony, just like the great balance in the painting. There's a tenacity and tempo to all the raw materials, that's my rhythm. That is my way of working to translate depth, light and shade. Monet brings in a shadow and smoke element, and for me this is represented by vetiver birch with a leathery undertone.

Limited edition Sunrise candle in hand-blown blue glass, by Perfumer H.

When you talk about the creation process, and your use of rhythm, tempo and palette, it’s almost like talking to a painter or composer…

There is an innocence of the light coming through the painting and everything contrasts, which I love. As a perfumer I like to create tension and I can feel this painting has real tension. The selection process of the formulas is so important, there’s a harmony and rhythm that comes in to play in the olfactory translation of a painting.

We have all been transported somewhere by the scent of something. Why is smell so evocative when it comes to memory or emotions?

Smell is our number one sense, and at the end of the day we are all animals. So, we are attracted to one another by our smells, but it's subconscious and we’re not aware of it. You won’t necessarily know why you are drawn to someone. When we smell, it hits the limbic area of the brain responsible for our subconscious and emotional responses – that’s why you feel an immediate reaction: “Oh my God, that's taking me somewhere”. You know you have smelt it before, but perhaps can’t recall where. It’s a very powerful trigger. I feel people are wanting that sensation now more than ever, especially after Covid. It’s about connection, immersion and creating a memorable moment or environment they want to travel, to look at art, to eat well. I was in New York last month and all the galleries were packed. People are searching for experiences and really seem to want an abundance of sensation.

Perfumer H Flagship store, Clifford Street, London. Photograph João Sousa.

In the course of your work, you travel and gather inspiration from the world around you. Do you collect anything?

I’m always out in nature so I’m a bit of a forager, and I collect stones and other bits of nature. I collect all sorts of things from all over the world that I bring back to my apartment, and they are full of memories. I’ve just returned from Taipei with a wooden board that’s got so many knife marks in it from people chopping over the years. It’s now on my wall and I love that it’s an object full of stories. I also collect pieces of glass, I have a thing about glassware, which is reflected in the hand-blown bottles for our perfumes. I’m also obsessed with plants, I’m always collecting new things for my herb garden.

You must have encyclopaedic knowledge of what everything smells like in all its different forms. Do you ever come across new smells, or find something that surprises you?

Last week I was walking my dog at night by the park in Primrose Hill, and the blossom is out, and because it's been a little bit wet and mild there was this incredible smell of the white flowers. The blossom is early this year, so that combined with temperature on the night and the fact that it had been raining created this incredible smell with cool undertones and an element of tree bark. That will hang around in my head for months and I will translate it into a fragrance.

Is there a figure from history that you would you most like to create a scent for?

During lectures on my course, I saw a very different side of Napoleon that was completely intriguing, and I thought “I would love to create something for him!” He had so many insecurities and I like getting into the sensitivities and complexity of someone’s character.

The limited edition Perfumer H Sunrise candle in hand-blown blue glass is available for purchase at Sotheby’s reception at 34-35 New Bond Street, during the Modern & Contemporary Sales.

Impressionist & Modern Art

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