Sotheby’s creates custom fragrances for still lifes

LONDON Sotheby’s has taken experiential shopping to a new level, turning to the master perfumer lyn harris to conjure up the scents of 17th century paintings from the golden age of Dutch and Flemish art. They will be part of an Old Masters night sale in London this week.

It was an unusual commission for Harris, the founder of Miller Harris and Perfumer H.but he enthusiastically embraced it, choosing three paintings—two still lifes and a landscape—from Juan Manuel Grasset’s vast collection, adding an olfactory dimension.

The result was three scented candles that are on display alongside the paintings at Sotheby’s in London. The candles are called Bird and Lemon; rose with insects; Smoke in Woods, and are housed under hand-blown glass domes specially made by Michael Ruh.

They are also on sale at Sotheby’s and Perfumer H, priced at £155 each.

One of the paintings depicts fallen roses in a bowl by Osias Beert the Elder. Another is Peter Binoit’s still life of a lemon, grapes, an apple, and other fruit. 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 “dipped into this era of decadence” to create the scents. The whole experience, he said, “made my heart sing.”

During the 17th century in continental Europe, still life paintings became popular with a new class of large and wealthy merchants who used original works of art to demonstrate their status. Still life and landscape oil paintings were among his most valuable possessions and reflected his pride in everyday life.

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While conjuring up scent from a picture 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 have always called my work olfactory painting”.

Sotheby's creates custom fragrances for still lifes Peter Binoit Still life of a lemon grapes an apple and other fruits with a bird in a porcelain bowl and a quail with plums and apricots in a gilt tazza and a sliced lemon olives and capers on a salver wit

Peter Binoit’s still life of a lemon, grapes, an apple and other fruit, part of an upcoming Old Masters sale at Sotheby’s London.

For Binoit’s fruit painting, Harris knew he wanted “a bite of lemon.” He also added notes of white grape, apricot, frankincense, and myrrh. The last two were meant to conjure up the fruit-filled ecclesiastical golden cup in the background of the painting.

When she looked at the Old Beert roses in the bowl, she thought: “I can’t just make a bouquet. Those flowers are withering and falling. I could smell that their water was not fresh and I could also smell the dust,” said Harris, who worked with notes of immortelle, a Mediterranean herb; honey, orange blossom, birch tar and papyrus.

With Govaerts’s landscape, Harris said he wanted to bring out the green wood in the painting and “the darkness and the light that comes from the fire.” He worked patchouli, oak, cedarwood, cade and galbanum.

The idea for creating the scents came from Alex Bell, Global Co-Chairman of Old Master Paintings, Sotheby’s, who was familiar with Harris’s work.

He was also aware of the finer points of Grasset’s collection, which had been assembled over four decades, describing the paintings as visually striking and “fragrant” because of all the fruits and flora. He believed they deserved a new sensory dimension.

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Bell said he had long thought to himself that if Sotheby’s ever sold the collection, “it would be great to get Lyn involved. 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 to enhance appreciation” of something that is familiar. “It is deeply evocative of place and time. It can take you to a different place,” he added.

Sotheby's creates custom fragrances for still lifes Abraham Govaerts A wooded river landscape with a gypsy fortune teller and peasants on a path men in a boat and a village beyond

Wooded River Landscape by Abraham Govaerts, to be auctioned at Sotheby’s London in an Old Masters sale.

Sotheby’s is just one of Harris’s many projects.

She was the olfactory for Solange’s new scent, Kiss My Lips, which is due out in January, and has also been working on a project with independent Japanese retailer Arts & Science, which is also due out early next year.

harris is Expanding Perfumer H, too, and has opened a second store in Marylebone, London, 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 coming year, Harris said he hopes to open a store in New York to serve the brand’s growing American clientele.

Lyn Harris Perfumer H, 106A Crawford Street London © Antony Jones Getty Images

Lyn Harris with the three new candles at Perfumer H in Crawford Street London.