– Guest post by Rose Strang.
Firstly, thanks Neil for hosting this interview on your excellent blog! Let me introduce myself – I’m an artist by profession and an occasional perfume reviewer for L.L.M. Edinburgh. Last month I interviewed Imogen Russon Taylor, owner and founder of Scotland’s first perfume house, Kingdom Scotland. Since L.L.M. isn’t specifically a perfume magazine I wanted to feature the full interview here, where it can be appreciated by fellow perfume aficionados!
Imogen takes much inspiration from Scotland’s landscape – its flora and geology. As an artist attempting to capture the atmosphere, scent and light of Scotland’s landscape I hoped that Kingdom Scotland perfumes would speak of that experience.
Imogen and I met up last month on a sunny Autumn day (despite Covid restrictions we both live in Edinburgh and sat on a bench on the banks of Edinburgh’s river, the Water of Leith). I hadn’t yet sampled the perfumes, which worried me since I wouldn’t have known how to deal with it gracefully if I hadn’t liked them! Luckily that fear was put to rest with one of my first questions …
Rose: Can I ask what perfume you’re wearing at the moment? It’s delightful.
I: (laughs) I can’t smell it as I’ve had it on a while …
R: … and the nose gets used to it …
I: Yes, it’s Portal
R: It’s lovely, it’s green … a sort of crispness … I’m not an expert, but – vetiver?
I: Vetiver – it’s got a beautiful Tahitian vetiver
R: Ah yes, it’s more smoky isn’t it?
I: Yes, a touch of smoke, and tree bark ..
R: Yes that gives the crispness, or not exactly crispness, the edge? It’s lovely
I: Thank you. For this interview – you mentioned it’ll be on Neil Chapman’s website, the Black Narcissus?
Rose: Yes, because I noticed he’d reviewed your perfumes and I think he liked Albaura ..
I: Albaura yes. He’d really considered them, it was excellent that’s he’d got the concept because that particular perfume was about independence and about a solo experience because she’d (botanist Isobel Wylie Hutchison) travelled alone, and he got all of that in the scent.
R: Amazing, he’s a poetic writer. Someone said, a friend of mine who’d read his blog, that it was a bit like reading Proust – I’ve not read very much Proust (laughs)- I’ve attempted a book and it’s very authentic – this rich inner world he expresses. It’s interesting Neil picked up on the story.
I: I really enjoyed reading his piece.
R: Ok, I’m going to ask about your background and inspiration, but first your name is Imogen Russon Taylor?
I: Russon (pronounces it Rooson)
R: Rooson, thanks! Tell me a little of your background and how you got into perfume-creation, what inspired you?
I: Ok. I’ve always loved scent. Even from a little girl – and I think this is a common story with people involved in perfume – I made perfume from petals in the garden, you know … I was obsessed with that! And then, my grandmother was very glamorous, she was a model in the 1950’s and she had a gown shop – called The Gown Shop, with amazing dresses. Then, just watching my grandmother get dressed – she would use Youth Dew, the bath oil from the 50’s…
R: Estee ..
I: Lauder yes, they brought it out in 1953 and it was a perfumed oil – it became a scent but it began as a bath oil. She used it to the end of her days and whenever I smell that I’m taken back to watching her get dressed. She had incredible hair, she’d have hair pieces, pearls –it was quite laborious, the way she’d get changed (laughs) but it was amazing…
R: Yes, watching that as a girl, just thinking ‘I want to be that glamorous when I grow up’!
I: Yes! But then my mum, in contrast – she was an academic, she loved perfume but in a much more demure way. She was more into Nina Ricci L’air du Temps …
R: Oh yes, my grandmother wore that I remember, it’s very elegant, delicate, isn’t it?
I: Yes a lighter sophisticated scent. There were two extremes of perfumery – my grandmother with Youth Dew then Magie Noire and she wore Poison (laughs) whereas my mum was into softer, more delicate ones. So yeah, I was fascinated with that, and then fast-forward in life to what you end up doing. I did geology at university …
R: Ah that explains the interest in Metamorphosis in your perfume; Metamorphic?!
I: Yes. I loved rocks, crystals, landscape … I studied physical geology at Edinburgh University for four years and I just loved it – I desperately wanted to study it at Edinburgh as it’s the best university in the world to learn geology and to learn in Scotland as well. I’ve got Scottish and French family but I’ve been brought up all over the place. So geology – obviously there were the sciences at school and at this point in my life, bringing everything I love into perfume … the concepts. It’s a personal journey and I approach scent as art. Because I had a science background I never really had the opportunity to express myself in that more creative artistic way, and perfume provides that opportunity.
R: Yes, and it is an art I agree – and perfume houses – Maison Francis Kurkdjian in particular – who create art and perfume installations – it’s something I’d like to chat with you about later on …
I: Yes that would be amazing …
R: But more about your inspiration …
I: Geology was something I absolutely loved. We went off to Iceland, spent a summer as a team in Iceland looking at Glacial movement and volcanic activity because it’s built on a fault line, as is Scotland. But in Iceland it’s a live fault line, it’s growing. That was incredible. After that I ended up working in Arolla, which is in Switzerland, looking at glacial landscape change and we were boring into the glaciers a mile down to get the capsules of air that would have been in the composition to see if there’d been a change in the atmospheric composition. So really looking at climate change. Then after I graduated I went to South West Africa looking at geomorphic mapping … you know in an Atlas when you’re looking through the first few pages? You obviously see the nations but then there’ll be another page with the rocks of the world? South West Africa was inaccurately mapped for its rock type: Cambridge and Edinburgh universities were working together to map the rock types. We were looking for quartz veins which are often found when you see the white veins through metamorphic rocks or rocks of a great age ..
R: Would that be like – serpentine veins through marble?
I: Yes exactly.
R I’m very interested in geology as a layperson, this is fascinating …
I: We were collecting rocks and we found rose quartz, smoky quartz and white quartz – and that was taken to a lab in San Francisco were they could look into the age of it and how long it had been exposed to the surface. I loved it. Then when we were in South Africa and we were working on the Skeleton Coast which is actually owned by De Beers and … I had a lot of life-threatening experiences where people thought we were diamond dealers, because we had Namibian Government on side, and it freaked me out! …
R: Yes, that would! (laughs)
I: Absolutely – being held at gun point, just because you’re looking for rocks (laughs) they thought we were looking for diamonds. And, I just came home after that experience, that whole six month trip and just thought ‘I’m going to work in an office’.
R: Yes, I suppose just a bit too much adventure!
I: I think it was! And so then, my cousin at the time was a director of the Clothes Show, do you remember Clothes Show on TV, years ago?
I: She worked for the BBC and she said; ‘Well, why don’t you try PR?’ and she knew Wayne Hemmingway, so I ended up working for Red or Dead, which was just a stint, it was great!
R: Oh yeah, I bought some Red or Dead shoes once! …
I: Yes, d’you remember? They were really cool! So I worked there and I decided to go back to university where I did PR and marketing, because I thought ‘I don’t know anything about this world’. I took a year, a Masters and then I ended up getting a job in a really big agency doing environmental PR. It felt important to me and it was translating my geology – I worked on environmental causes in early stages ..
R: So that tied in and was meaningful?
I: Yes, that was interesting but it was a big agency and it was in London and they had this thing on the notice board saying they wanted to do a competition where everyone had to pitch because one of their clients wanted them to go in-house. And I had a look and though ‘I’ll have a go’. I didn’t know who the client was and we had to pitch them and give them an idea, and I won it! It was to go and work for Paramount and Universal Films. So, bizarrely I won it!
R: Paramount Universal, that’s amazing!
I: Yeah, and TV, Nickelodeon, Star Trek, and I was Head of back catalogue for Europe. I used to go to L.A. to work for a team but I was based in Universal International Pictures (UIP) I was there for two years – it was amazing – I went through all their back catalogue, I brought Barbarella back, Jaws I and II, the Godfather Trilogy… I ended up doing film PR for ten years.
R: You must have met some fascinating people, could you name drop now?! Laughs)
I: (laughs) It’s not as glamorous as you think. Some of it was – red carpet was fun – but behind the scenes it’s a lot of hard work. A lot of stress …
R: A different kind of stress from being mistaken for a diamond thief!?
I: (laughs) Absolutely. I learned publicity, but there was a low moment where there was a really big star from the Dorchester and we had all the journalists queued up for this new film and she’d come from the States with all her entourage. Basically you realise the entourage are trying to justify their existence. One of them said ‘She won’t do this interview because there’s bits in the orange juice’ …
R: That’s like a scene from Spinal Tap or something …
I:I remember thinking ‘what am I going to do’ – we had the journalist waiting, so I thought ‘Egyptian cotton’, so I got the pillow case that was new and clean and thought ‘I’ll sieve the orange juice’. (laughs) I was thinking ‘what am I doing?! I started applying for other jobs, I thought ‘I think I’ve had my fill now’. You sort of plateau. I ended up working for Brands then – whisky brands and wine brands. The agency I worked for had Rolls Royce, Chivas Regal – all of the whiskies from there – Macallan, Famous Grouse, Glenmorangie, Highland Park and you know when you’re younger and you try different drinks? So whisky became part of my portfolio in my early drinks life and I loved it! I was taught how to ‘nose’ it, how to taste it. The company sent me on a course, by an organisation called the International Wines and Spirits Trust. I did the course and went up to Diploma (the next stage is Master of Wine). I did a lot of training in ‘nosing’ and wines and spirits. And that’s how my nose was trained. Also the different distillation, maturation processes, the different nuances.
R: Tell me more about training and the ‘nosing’ process … I mean, to me it’s memory, it’s the connection between scent and memory that’s difficult. Quite often if you’re smelling a perfume you haven’t tried for ages, or only a few times in life, you’ll know it, your nose knows it! But your brain doesn’t remember the names of notes, or the name of the perfume. Do you get training in strengthening that?
I: You do, and I think it’s really interesting – that sort of cognition of recognising a scent and verbalising it. It’s actually stopping and, it’s almost like mindfulness isn’t it? Where you stop, you recognise the scent, you label it you give it a name and often I find that if you actually speak it, it goes into the mind and then you have a better recall. Apparently, you can improve your recall, or recognise scents by forty percent in one week. So if you engage your brain – we’re so not used to this because we lived by scent…
R:.. scent where it was a survival thing?…
I: ..and we’ve lost the knack and I think some other cultures still have it? And I think our language, the English language doesn’t really take it on board. They say that the more sophisticated a culture, the less they rely on their sense of smell and they kind of forget that connection.
R: So it’s almost seen as primitive but it’s actually sophisticated?
I: Totally, cos your sense of smell – for me I think it’s your sense of self because it’s defined by your whole life experience ; what terroir you’ve been brought up in, what you’ve eaten, what crops are growing…
R: What’s evocative, what’s emotional …
I: Mhm, and that’s very personal, and then it goes into the different layers of memory of smells and experiences. So it’s not only food, landscape, geography … it’s also those emotional things. I was talking about that cognition. Because we live so much in a digital world, that now, even more so it’s all about sight and vision and sound.
R: Yes, and it’s very scattered, on top of everything, it’s not mindful – there’s tonnes of information so it’s quite difficult to stop that all from coming in. You know, you have to consciously stop all that input just to process life – mindfulness yes.
I: Mhm. I think that process of improving your sense of smell – they were talking about this in the drinks industry and I remember they were saying that because 80% of taste, at least, is smell you have to able to ‘nose’ properly and you have to protect your nose. All of the master distillers, for whiskies are insured. And I know that just now they’re all in isolation because they’re terrified they’ll get Covid.
R: Of course because of the loss of smell.
I: Mm, and there’s not yet good enough research to know if it comes back properly.
R: And it’s an incredibly emotional thing – I’ve had two friends who lost their sense of smell for some time due to illness and they described the absolute joy and relief they felt when it returned. For one it was some months after cancer treatment, when he uncorked a bottle of Shiraz and smelled the cork, the first thing he’d been able to smell for months. For another friend, who’d recently had Covid and recovered it was when she was cycling and noticed the scent of a grass verge. They both described tears of relief.
I: Amazing, it’s interesting about Alzheimer’s, that focussing on scent therapy can actually calm people because if people are anxious because they’re losing memories, apparently certain scents you know, ground you, calm you, which is wonderful. Also if you lose your sense of smell for reasons you’ve just described, or for example a knock to the head, it often comes with depression.
R: Yes, unless you’re born with anosmia and don’t know what you’re missing … but sorry, taking you off on a tangent! – you were working with whisky brands …
I: Yes, it was just a very interesting way to learn, and after working on different brands I was approached by Hennesy/Louis Vuitton – the biggest luxury goods group in the world. They had bought Glenmorangie and Ardbeg (leading whisky companies) and at the time it was the first Maison they’d bought which was non French.
To fast-forward, this all played into setting up a perfume house. There were several years of research. I wanted to take my time with it and we asked people what words they associated with Scotland; the word ‘magical’ came up most and then my experiences of Scotland, going to the west coast as a child with family – we holidayed in places like Ardnamurchan – with beautiful forests, which I wanted to capture. I’ll talk you through the perfumes (Imogen brings out samples)
R: As you talk me through the perfumes shall I try them?
(Imogen sprays Portal on to my wrist)
R: Aaah. I love this already – its greenness, it’s a forest yes!
I: Yes, it has the sweetness of herbs, and the sweetness of wild flora, like a carpet of bluebells
R: I’m smelling all of that as you say it, it’s verdant and foresty but I love that it’s a perfume, you know, it’s abstract, it’s a mood – sophisticated, green, Galadriel might wear it! That’s my first impressions…
I: In all of them the signature is the complexity as well. And it has a reveal in the top mid and base, that reveals with time. The opening is very much the sweetness of herbs, and a ‘verdant flora’ I call it. Then it gets mossier and woodier and deeper, like you’re going deeper into the wood. And it has earth as well, a grounding earthiness, which is the vetiver. And a touch of amber in the base.
R: And there’s a sort of sunshine as well? It’s not dark as there’s a sunlight coming through..
I: There’s a lovely magnolia as well, which brings a kind of floral, very green – almost like a green flower? Which I think is a bit sunshiny as well, but there’s bergamot and neroli in the opening which sort of dances in the light.
R: I love this and it’s a winner for me as I just love green perfumes. The queen of green being Chanel 19 in parfum. This has a contemporariness to it of course but a depth as well.
I: I absolutely love some of the classics, you know, Mitsouko, I suppose L’Air du Temp, and all the Chanels – Cristalle, 19, 18 as well is lovely, it’s quite woody and spicy. I wanted to bring something of that into them as well. I had the idea for the business eight years ago and set it up four years ago and then spent two years in research before I even launched a product, so it took a long time.
R; So this is something you want to take you through life?
I: Yes, but I suppose I wanted to be proud of it, so it was true, and I didn’t have huge funds so I had to be careful and clever. I didn’t want to rush it. Interestingly, one of the first things I did, was to speak with Scottish Enterprise. I asked them if there was a Scottish fragrance house, because I thought there must have been one but I just didn’t know about it. They had this initiative called Interface, which was a conduit between academia and businesses, start-ups. I managed to get a grant and worked with University history departments and I was introduced to a Post Doc – a lady called June Hollis, and we researched into Scotland’s perfume past. I went through the National Record, the National Archives, the National Library. We were looking for stories, you know, about perfume and perhaps a brand, ingredients, you know – rituals – the way people perhaps used scent. We just thought let’s start a bit of research …
R: And did you find anything significant?
I: We didn’t find a perfume brand. In the whole history we couldn’t find a brand.
R: It’s astonishing!
I: It is astonishing, and June Hollis got frustrated, because she couldn’t believe it herself. So through all the national records and archives and everything she found chemists and barbers selling brands, and some of them were doing very basic toilet waters, like lavender waters and rose waters that were recipe-based, but they weren’t branded. They were selling English, French, Russian (or areas of what’s now Russia) and also Italian brands.
R: So perfumes were being traded but there was no Scottish brand?
I: Yes, so that’s when June said ‘You can say you’re Scotland’s first fragrance house’.
R; and you can say that truly with no exaggeration!
I: And so I thought ‘well, here we go!’ In some ways I was disappointed because I thought I might be able to bring something back to life, but then I thought ‘well actually, this is the opportunity’ and I can start as I thought perhaps a brand should have been, if it were there, but do it now. So that’s how it started. I had three months left of June and she said ‘Ok, what shall we do now?’ So we turned to the Botanical Gardens and went through their archive, because it’s such an amazing place – 350 years old and the ingredients, Scottish botanists and the wealth of knowledge. I’ve got so many stories, as a bank really, that I’ll tell in the coming years of the different perfumes, the different ingredients.
R: And of the botany you’re discovering in the Botanic Gardens, are you looking at plants indigenous only to Scotland or everywhere?
I: Everywhere. Because the British garden as we know, it very much down to the pioneering of the Scottish Botanists. Scottish Botanists were the most prolific in the world – travelling and bringing things back. Rhododendrons, lily, hyacinth, passion fruits, lots of apples and loads of species from Africa, South America – all over the world and now we know them as species in a British garden! It’s an international story. So I learned huge amounts because I’d never studied botany before. I worked with an archivist and the perfume Albaura was a particular result because I said ‘Tell me about the botanists, show me some of their life stories’. We were looking at Balfour, Sybil, George Forest lots of different characters, and then a lady called Isobel Wylie Hutchison jumped up at me, in what was a sea of men, so I was like ‘Tell me about her!’. (laughs).
I learned about Isobel Wylie Hutchison, and she didn’t have any children and she didn’t marry, so a lot of her materials and work were given to the Royal Botanic Gardens. I was able to read her letters and her journals and go through lots of the samples she collected. She loved the Arctic, she was an Arctic explorer and a Scottish botanist. She was the first woman to get the Royal Geographical prize.
R; A pioneering woman..
I: She travelled – her first expedition was in 1926, I believe, and she travelled all the way to Greenland and she basically hitched rides.
R; I was just assuming she’d be part of some huge expedition with big funding!
I: (laughs) She was born in Carlowry Castle in Kirkliston (west of Edinburgh) in 1889 and she lived right through to 1982. She had two older brothers and they both died in accidents. She was the third child with two younger sisters, so the estate and the responsibility was falling on her shoulders. Her parents were basically bringing in suitors and she really didn’t want it! Hence she ran off to the Arctic, became a botanist and worked for the National Geographic. She worked for Kew and the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE) so she could be free.
She had lots of expeditions to Iceland, Greenland – she travelled the Arctic and brought back arctic poppy, arctic peony. Arctic poppy is a yellow poppy – the seeds come over they’re very fleeting and they’re very fragile. You see the yellow poppies about July/August time and they have a very delicate, sophisticated and quite intense scent because they only live for two or three days
R: They really have to put out all the perfume to attract the insects fast and work overtime?!
I: Yeah! So that’s at the heart of this fragrance. This is icy, fresh and cold (sprays Albaura on my right wrist). It’s a tribute to Isobel Wylie Hutchison and her work and her life. Also, she travelled alone generally, so I wanted the opening to be, almost like petals on coastal ice, glaciers, a coldness to it … but then it becomes more sophisticated. I tried to bring to life the Arctic poppy note, which is a fantasy accord.
R: Mhm, there’s something very white, almost powdery about it, there’s an iris? ..
R: I love iris – iris, vetiver and leather are probably my favourite notes … Gorgeous.
I: (laughs) they’ve all got one of each! This has a herbaceous, herby iced juniper …
R: Ah, now you’ve said that, I get it – and that makes you think of gin, which makes you think of ice and white spirits, brilliant, this is clever (laughs)
I: Yes, there’s a gin accord within that, which works because it makes you think of iced botanicals, and then it will get more sophisticated as it develops. In the 1920’s when she was at her height there’s a reveal to it, and quite a sophisticated heart, and if you like Chanel 19 ..
R; Well I love it in all its forms…
I: This has a galbanum note
R; ah that sort of green bitterness, beautiful
I: Then it has artemisia as well, it’s used in absinthe and there’s a hint of mint as well. She travelled alone, she was bold, she was independent, and incredibly creative. She wrote poetry, she created lovely art. At the Modern Art Gallery there’s a whole collection of her watercolours.
R; Oh, I’d love to see those!
I: And, bizarrely, as I released this perfume, they did a talk and one of my friends is the curator there and she said; ‘Your perfume! You’ve got to come and bring it’. She was doing a talk and had all the paintings out and there were some sketches of her (Isobel Wylie Hutchison) as well, and because she died without any children that was why a lot of it was given back to the nation.
R: I had read a little of the story on your website but it’s great to hear the whole story.
I: Yes. That’s the one (Albaura) that Neil Chapman (of Black Narcissus) liked and it’s quite interesting he’s picked this …
R: Well he loves Chanel 19, I read, so this would immediately appeal.
I: Aaah, and then the base has cedar absolute and rock moss to bring the lichen aspect to it, and ambergris as well – it’s an aromatic ambergris rather than animalic because it’s vegan. It gives it more of a 3D aspect. Ambergris I’ve found, with the different types I’ve worked with, tends to give a solidity.
R: And sniffing Portal on my left wrist, it feels more – watery? Like green river-y? I love that they’re landscape – inspired.
I: Yeah, if you have a Scottish perfume house you have to, don’t you?
R: Yes! I’m so glad you’ve created this because – you know they say; ‘everyone has a book in them’? I feel there’s a perfume in me, but you’ve made it! I had an idea that if I was going to make a perfume it would maybe be called Ariundel, inspired by Ariundel oak forest up in Ardnamurchan (remote area on Scotland’s west coast). These ideas are just great – though for me it’s gone into painting instead of perfume!
I: (laughs) And perfume is an artistic pursuit.
I: In my first collection, I had to have something about rocks, because I’m so a rock nerd, it’s such a deep love of mine and I love the word ‘metamorphic’ – it’s just such a fabulous word. That’s the most complex of rocks. Scotland is built on two fault lines and has the most complex geology in the world, in such a small place of earth.
R: A geologist’s dream …
I: It’s a fabulous place to study it. Metamorphic is the most complex of rocks, created under intense heat and pressure. So, gneiss – Lewiston gneiss.
R: Did you have that in mind when you were making Metamorphic?! I once painted the Stones of Callanish on Lewis, which are made of gneiss.
I: So you know exactly what I’m talking about!
R: And I’m dying to try Metamorphic now …
I: (brings out bottle of Metamorphic). This is about Lewisian Gneiss, but its creation, not its static result. It’s imagining heat and pressure and smouldering, minerals and heat and earth. It’s also got tobacco and leather – there’s a lot going on in this, it’s very rich and it’s spicy as well, to represent that heat. A lot of metamorphic rock is on the west coast. I thought, I’ve got to have an eye on the malt because a lot of its ingredients – smouldering, tobacco, peat, earth are in Islay malt whisky, and I love Islay malt – you know the peated malts. It has at its heart and Islay malt accord.
R: So it’s sense of an island like Lewis, or the Hebridean islands and the incredible process of the making of metamorphic rock.
I: And it actually smells in some ways a bit like a fine malt by the fire … ( sprays Metamorphic on my arm). This one really settles on skin, it has rose absolute at its heart, which softens it because it is quite woah! To start with, then it softens down. It’s interesting because I’ve got quite dry Celtic skin, which tends to be drier
R: Me too.
I: And it means that you go to the heart notes more quickly
R: (sniffing arm) Oooooh I love it! It’s peaty and smoky – it’s got loads of character. I suppose speaking traditionally, people might say it’s masculine? I love it.
I; Yeah I love it, it’s interesting because it depends what mood you’re in, this is my ‘bold perfume’.
R: Yes absolutely, it would go well with an avant garde sort of dress in winter! I know that my partner is going to love this too: I might have to get it for Christmas! It’s quite animalic, maybe leather?
I: Yes, it’s got a tiny touch of oud. I think sometimes oud can overpower, and as a western nose being brought up in the west most of my life I only like touches of it. So there’s a touch of it, but there’s a beautiful sandalwood in it, leathers, tobaccos, because I didn’t want it to overpower I wanted to able to smell all the different elements of it and the minerals. So that’s interesting, that’s the really polarising one, people either love it or hate it. There’s not much middle ground.
R; I should have recognised the oud straight away because I’ve been smelling quite a few recently– you know the Gucci Alchemist’s garden series? In the black bottle?
I: The Snake one … Voice of the Snake.
R: Voice of the Snake, that’s it! I’d imagine you’d enjoy the presentation and depth of quality. Yeah I’ve never been drawn to Gucci perfumes before but that series was amazing.
I: Yes, I was proud to be displaying next to them (at Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh) it was great!
With Kingdom Botanica; once I’d made Albaura with the Royal Botanic Gardens, they said ‘we love doing this, it’s our 350th anniversary coming up and would you consider making a perfume to celebrate 350 years?’ and I said I’d love to. They said ‘we’re a public body, we can’t fund you but we can open doors, help with our staff and the archives’. Again this was two years in the making and that journey’s been incredible because, well to start with I thought ‘where on earth do you start?’ 350 years; you’re going back to 1670 when the Botanic Garden opened as a physic garden in the Royal Mile, in the Palace of Holyrood, which was basically a healing garden for the nobility, then right through to the present day. I met with the people who were recreating the physic garden (which was supposed to open this year but because of Covid it’ll be next year) and they were talking about Blackcurrant stem and bud. I love that note, love it. So all the time I was going around thinking ‘what ingredients, what story shall I pull together for Kingdom Botanica?’ It was quite a tough brief because you don’t want something to be … linear, or one dimensional. This was basically about biodiversity in a perfume and all the stories of healing, the physic garden, right through to conservation. So this, I call it Botanical maximalism ; every time you smell it, you’ll smell something else.
I’m going to tell you a little bit about it before you try it because we started with the heart. Rhododendrons are the most prolific (in the Botanic Gardens) they’ve got over three thousand different varieties that were discovered by Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh by the botanist called George Forest, in the Yunnan peninsula in the Himalayas. Mostly rhododendrons are non-scented but the varia variety is scented, so we would work in the glass houses and we managed to identify this by the scent which is very similar to lily. So we created a fantasy lily accord that brought the rhododendron work to life. Also George Forrest brought really beautiful jasmines, iris and also this rose – the heart is quite narcotic, exotic floral. They’ve got huge amounts of work in terms of conifers, sequoias which they got from the states, redwoods, so there’s a beautiful sandalwood, there’s cedarwood, there’s amber. The Botanics also have some middle eastern projects where they’re looking at conserving and protecting middle eastern plants. They’ve got a whole glasshouse which isn’t open to the public , for the middle eastern plants – boswellia, or frankincense and myrrh, so it’s got frankincense and myrrh in it! Its top notes have something of the physic garden, so it’s got blackcurrant stem and bud and pink pepper. I wanted it to smell, when you first smell it, like you’re walking into a glass house.
R: I really love that glasshouse smell!
I: This is the one Neil Chapman described as going down the High Street at night on the pull, or something like that (laughs)
R: (laughs) He usually seems to like big florals!
I: He did like this, but he really liked Albaura. (sprays Botanica on my arm)
R: Oh yes, I get the humidity, greenness yes .
I: Yes, it’s got a warmth to it
R: Warmth absolutely…
I: And then it’s very floral. So that was quite a brief, it took a long time to bring to life. That will get woodier and frankincense and myrrh comes out in the base
R: I’m enjoying this … I never used to think I was a floral lover but as I’ve became more obsessed with perfume, there are certain florals I love …
I: It’s interesting, I think that florals are having a little bit of a renaissance. I think smoky, woody perfumes have been so in vogue for such a while. So there’s so much going on in Botanica, I call it a green floral, woody oriental.
R: A green floral, woody oriental (laughs) There’s a lot going on in this yes, I do love this humid – you know Songes by Goutal? That had a tropical humidity, this is cooler.
I: Green, but then I thought because they brought back so many heady florals I thought I’ve got to have that at its heart. It has a hint of nostalgia because it’s got that hint of orris and jasmine absolute. It was a compliment to the first collection, so they’re going to release that at the Botanics on Friday (9th October) which is exciting ..
R; So this is a new release?
I: Yes, brand new. That’s being quite hard getting that over through the Covid pandemic, but in some ways it kept me sane because it was a lovely project to work on through that – we had lots of Zoom meetings to plan what we would do and it’s taken longer than we thought because…everything just takes longer at this moment. The Botanic Gardens have created this gorgeous glass house thing – which I’m going to go and see – to house the perfume, and a big display.
R: How does the launch work, will people be able to go?
I: Well, the launch sounds quite glamorous because we’re not going to do a party, we’re starting with social media; we’ll do something live online, we’ll do some interviews, we’ll do some ‘nosing’, where you go to a ticketed event and … we’re just working it out..
R: Yes, because the sand keeps shifting and we don’t know quite what we can do ..
I: Yeah, and we can’t do a real live event. I didn’t mention that plum blossom was in Botanica and that’s a massive part of its opening because that’s the symbol of China. There’s a fruitiness to it.
R; Yes I’m getting that (sniffing arm). It has that elegant floral scent yes and such complexity I won’t keep you too much longer as you must be busy, but something I’ve always wanted to create is a painting in response to a perfume so if at any future point you found that an interesting idea, I’d be interested in responding in painting.
I: That’s lovely.
R: I don’t know how that would work. It would be perhaps the landscape the perfume evokes in the mind – a landscape of imagination?
I: That sounds great! I think that’s a lovely idea. Next year, though, cos if the world were to be … open again! It would be a lovely exhibition.
R; And it could be in Edinburgh, so, fingers crossed, things will be improving soon.
I: Yes. It’s nice to meet you, I can’t believe we’re in the same city!
R; I know, imagine that! I’m so happy that Scotland has a serious and talented perfumer. The one last thing I was going to ask is, when you’re putting your perfumes together – I know that you are a ‘nose’, but do you work with a perfumer or somebody in the perfume industry?
I: That’s really interesting – at the start I did it myself, I tinkered myself and I realised I wasn’t getting the complexity I wanted. I got really frustrated…
R: It’s an incredibly complicated art …
I: Also access to the ingredients, the ingredients you wanted – it was very tough, you know as an independent, so I started to look for perfumers to work with. That’s why it took so long to get my first perfumes right, because you want to work with people that are happy to engage in the creative process because there’s a lot of perfumers that say , you know; ‘give me the brief and go away’. I was thinking ‘no, I want to get involved!’ (laughs)
R: So more collaborative …
I: Yeah, I wanted to be involved in a collaboration, because I understand notes and I knew what I wanted……for example Kingdom Botanica, I knew which ingredients and how I wanted it to reveal. That was the journey. I can’t work with people that can’t allow me into the creative process. I’ve worked with three perfumers so far and I love it, it’s really interesting – it’s like working with a different artist. With Kingdom Botanic I worked with Stephanie Anderson who’s from Falkirk and she’s classically trained. She did a chemistry degree, she’s done 18 years of training and she’s a protegee of Dominic Ropion …
R: Oh wow.
I: Yeah, ‘Portrait of Lady’ – ‘Carnal Flower’. And Stephanie Anderson, who’s just been brilliant. She’s come over here and she was pregnant during the process and it was quite interesting how her sense of smell was heightened. She came round all the Botanics glass houses and the herbarium. The herbarium has got around three million samples and we went through some of them, we saw samples from Charles Darwin and the Beagle – amazing. The Botanics opened every door for us.
R; Very few people will have had that experience, that’s wonderful.
R: Well, thank you Imogen. This has been fascinating! I hope it also will be for people on Black Narcissus …
I: Thank you!
Imogen Russon Taylor.