I n Osias Beert the Elder’s Still life of roses in an oriental lacquer and canework bowl, on a ledge with a butterfly and dragonfly. (c 1615), 12 distinct varieties of summer roses (White, French, Dog, Cinnamon, Damask and Apothecary's Roses, along with Sweet Briars and Austrian Briars) emerge rowdily from a woven vessel, abundant and exuberant. You can imagine just how heady an aroma this assemblage would have generated.
A Life Less Ordinary: Lyn Harris
Beert’s piece is one of the masterpieces from the Grasset Collection, part of the Old Masters Evening Auction on 7 December. Assembled by the late Juan Manuel Grasset, the collection features still lifes and landscapes by artists including Jan Brueghel the Elder, Floris van Dijck and Jan Davidz de Heem.
In order to inspire a modern-day, yet timeless creative response to the paintings in the auction, Sotheby’s has invited British perfumer Lyn Harris of Perfumer H to create three exclusive signature candles. A leading figure in modern British perfumery, founder of Miller Harris as well as Perfumer H, Lyn Harris is justly renowned for her extraordinarily imaginative olfactory blends, traditional skills and passion for the highest-quality ingredients. And as she explains, these paintings inspire her deepest senses, serving as a starting point, a dense, visual experience which she gradually transliterates into an equally-textured fragrance.
'You see, in perfumery, it's very like colours in art,' she tells Sotheby's. 'You can't just use rose, you have to use spices. You have to use a little bit of fruit. You have to use a little bit of citrus, you have to use a bit of green, you have to use a bit of the balms. We paint, but in an olfactory way - I create olfactory paintings. Because for me, smell is my way of portraying my creativity. It’s so interlinked with art which is why I find this project very interesting and very important.'
As an example of how Lyn reacts to and is inspired by an artwork, we'll take the case of Osias Beert the Elder's painting and
It's the emotion that it provokes in me, the detail of everything. The precision of the light. Why insects? Why that basket?
'My interpretation of the bouquet in this painting is abstract,' she says. 'I've used no rose at all. Instead, I’ve included one of its main constituents, the scent of which has a touch of honey. The base of patchouli, cade (distilled from juniper wood), birch tar and a touch of amber provides a density and richness, like this work’s dark heavy background, which enriches the soft, poetic lightness of the subject matter.'
Beert's composition is a stirring example of Dutch Golden Age still life painting, the flowers echoing the sense of abundant luxury that imbues so many Flemish still-life paintings of the 17th century. And of that era, Beert's works were some of the most definitive.
'Still life is one of my favourite subjects, and especially this era,' says Harris. 'First of all, it's the emotion that it provokes in me, the detail of everything. The precision of the light. Why insects? Why that basket? And then, flowers don't last forever. But they can still be beautiful as they fade.'
Examining the painting further, Lyn uncovers deeper themes and ideas being addressed by Beert. The 17th century artist and 21st century perfumer both find themselves entranced by the affirmation of life and acknowledgment of transience, found within the assembly of flowers and creatures.
'I love the dragonfly,' observes Harris. 'You know, for me, the insects add magic, this air of mystery and intrigue to the whole still life. And the imperfection of the flowers that are fading, they're not perfect - I think that's what's interesting. It parallels with perfumery, it's so easy to create something perfectly or to paint something in its perfect form, so to give it a different nuance with that element of fragility, I just love that. It really inspires me. It touches me creatively because that's how I see my pieces. They shouldn't be perfect.'
Harris worked from these responses to begin layering her scent, Rose With Insects, directly addressing the cycle of life, as well as Beert's framing device - the woven basket. She explains how her scent began to take shape.
'The icy coolness of angelica root represents the dampness of the wet green stems and to symbolise the fragility of living flowers at the start of their life cycle. [So] I added papyrus and vetiver grass – both of which rest on a base of dark mahogany woods – to reference the woven texture of the lacquered basket.'
While works from this period celebrated the growing wealth brought to the Netherlands by Dutch traders around the world, Beert nevertheless had a cautionary message. The presence of the dragonfly and butterfly, along with a few fallen petals, serve as a reminder of impermanence – the flowers in bloom now will wilt and fade and the insects may fly off at any moment, leaving only the opulent empty bowl, a vanity of human pride. Lyn delved into this fascinating idea to continue delicately blending her scent.
'The beautiful roses are fading somewhat and the petals are starting to wilt. Immortelle, from a herb also known as the curry plant, has an animalic quality, and I’ve used it to reflect that imperfection and lessen the overall sweetness.'
Lyn Harris is one of Britain's leading perfumers, renowed for not only Perfumer H, which she launched in 2015, but the much-loved Miller Harris brand she co-founded in 2000. Lyn began her career after studying with Monique Schlienger in Paris and Robertet in France's scent capital Grasse and this grounding in traditional skills has stood her in good stead. Today,she is synonymous with a quiet, vividly British aesthetic that manifests in beautiful, idiosyncratic fragrances.
'I think with my olfactory palate,' she says. 'So, everything is determined through that and that's how I express my creativity. Because you've got the experience and know how, you just know what goes with each other. You know how to make something much greener or darker. And then sometimes you're walking in a garden and you just think, ‘Wow, I just smell fig with rose and ivy.’ And then it's how do I make that beautiful on somebody's skin? That's my task.'
As a student of art, nature, science and beauty, Lyn is an alchemist of sensory delights. This, naturally, resonates closely with the fundamental themes found in the still lifes within the Grasset Collection.
Here, Lyn summarises the moods and inspirations for the exclusive new trio of candles, inspired by three specific works from the Grasset Collection featured in Sotheby's December 2022 Old Masters Evening Auction
BIRD AND LEMON
'Lemon takes a central focus with nuances of white grape and apricot surrounded by golden resins of myrrh, frankincense and opoponax enhanced with nutmeg and clove resting on dark woods of cedar wood and oak.'
ROSE WITH INSECTS
'An olfactory painting of a fading rose bouquet with an air of honey and immortelle representing life and its fragility, resting on a base of dark mahogany woods of patchouli fused with papyrus and vetiver portraying the woven lacquered basket with cade and birch tar to ignite the darkness.'
SMOKE IN WOODS
'The light of a distant log fire with sandalwood, birch tar and smouldering cade surrounded by green oak and cedar wood with a watery reflection of juniper and black pepper and a hint of frankincense to complete this olfactory landscape.'
Lyn Harris's 325g candles presented in containers hand-blown by glassblower Michael Ruh, will be on sale for £155 each at Sotheby’s New Bond Street during Masters Week this December.