LONDON — Sotheby’s has taken experiential shopping to a new level, tapping master perfumer Lyn Harris to conjure the scents of 17th-century paintings from the golden age of Dutch and Flemish art. They will be part of an Old Masters evening sale in London this week.
It was an unusual commission for Harris, the founder of Miller Harris and Perfumer H, but she embraced it with gusto, picking three paintings — two still lifes and a landscape — from the vast collection of Juan Manuel Grasset, and adding an olfactory dimension.
The result was three scented candles that are on display next to the paintings at Sotheby’s in London. The candles are called Bird and Lemon; Rose with Insects; Smoke in Woods, and are housed under specially made, handblown glass cloches made by Michael Ruh.
They are also being sold at Sotheby’s and Perfumer H, priced at 155 pounds each.
One of the paintings depicts drooping roses in a bowl by Osias Beert the Elder. Another is Peter Binoit’s still life of a lemon, grapes, an apple and other fruits. The third is a lush river landscape with peasants on a path by Abraham Govaerts.
Harris said she pasted copies of the works on her walls, and “immersed myself in this era of decadence” to create the scents. The whole experience, she said, “made my heart sing.”
During the 17th century in Continental Europe, still-life paintings became popular among a new large and wealthy merchant class that used original artworks to demonstrate status. Still-life and landscape oil paintings were among their most valuable possessions, and reflected their pride in everyday life.
While conjuring scent from an image may have seemed strange at first, Harris said she always paints a picture in her head before creating a fragrance. “Then I translate it. I’ve always called my work olfactory painting.”
For Binoit’s fruit painting, Harris knew she wanted “a mouthful of lemon.” She also added notes of white grape, apricot, frankincense and myrrh. The latter two were meant to conjure the fruit-filled, ecclesiastical golden goblet in the painting’s background.
When she looked at Beert the Elder’s roses in the bowl, she thought, “I can’t just do a bouquet. Those flowers are fading and drooping. I could smell that their water wasn’t fresh, and I could also sense the dusty smell,” said Harris, who worked with notes of immortelle, a Mediterranean herb; honey, orange flower, birch tar and papyrus.
With the Govaerts landscape, Harris said she wanted to bring out the painting’s green woodiness, and “the darkness and light that comes from fire.” She worked with patchouli, oak, cedar wood, cade and galbanum.
The idea to create the scents came from Alex Bell, co-chairman, worldwide Old Master Paintings, Sotheby’s, who was familiar with Harris’ work.
He also knew the fine points of Grasset’s collection, which had been assembled over four decades, and described the paintings as visually striking and “fragrant” due to all of the fruit and flora. He believed that they deserved a new sensory dimension.
Bell said he’d long thought to himself that if Sotheby’s were to ever sell the collection, “it would be great to involve Lyn. I thought, if anyone could really add a new layer of understanding and appreciation to these works, it would be her.”
He believes that adding scent to an image is transporting, “and a way of enhancing the appreciation” of something that is familiar. “It is profoundly evocative of place and time. It can take you to a different place,” he added.
Sotheby’s is just one of Harris’ many projects.
She was the nose for the new Solange scent, Kiss My Lips, which is set to come out in January, and has also been working on a project with the independent Japanese retailer Arts & Science, which also comes out early next year.
Harris is expanding Perfumer H, too, and has opened a second shop in London’s Marylebone, on Chiltern Street. In August, she opened a Perfumer H store in Paris on Rue Vieille-du-Temple in the Marais, and also sells her fragrances at Le Bon Marché.
In the next year, Harris said she’s hoping to open a store in New York to cater to the brand’s growing American clientele.