Obsessions

Eau de Ermine

“Responding to art works has always been a compulsion of mine; I want to put something between me and it to ‘reply’ to it… To put something in the space between us that tries to explain how I feel about it.” John Foley is a scent-maker, costumier and artist. Here he starts a conversation with Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of Cecelia Gallerani. Eau de Ermine.

Words JOHN FOLEY


Since I began making perfumes by far the most rewarding work that I do is collaborations with artists in creating scents that are part of the overall experience of the artworks. This involves a great deal of conversations and mutual understandings of what each party are bringing to the project. For me it’s about how I respond to the pieces and how I can express those responses with scent. Responding to art works has always been a compulsion of mine; I want to put something between me and it to ‘reply’ to it… To put something in the space between us that tries to explain how I feel about it.

As well as working with contemporary artists I also make scents for older artworks. So far I’ve made scents for paintings by El Greco, Georgia O Keeffe and others. Lady With An Ermine by Leonardo Da Vinci has long intrigued me because of its subject matter and it’s curious mood of unease. Both subjects, Cecelia Gallerani and the ermine look intensely to the left from a neutral black space, with both looking at perhaps the same unseen object or perhaps not. After looking at it several times over a long period I focused in on the narrow gold band that runs just above the Lady’s eyebrows and the Ermine as the startling points for me to proceed from to make a perfume. I decided a musk perfume with echoes of gold and earthy notes would best express for me the alertness and caution created in the painting .

Serge Lutyens Muscs Koublai Khan, Diptyque Eau Duelle and Fredric Malle Musc Ravageur

Perfume is a thing of Substance as well as Style. To make the perfume I used a base of laudanum and benzoin resin to anchor the golden band and the flesh of the woman into the composition. For the ermine and the background I used a blend of Tonka Bean Oil and Costus Root Oil, both of which are deep musky smells that have layers of sharpness and wide sweetnesses and darkness in them. Perfume making has moved on from using various body parts of animals to create musk scents and the two organic substances I used are more than adequate at creating the same effects. Making perfumes is really a question of ratios and choices of what to highlight and when to do it. Perfume changes over time on skin and paper and this perfume finally dried down to a soft warmth that lasted overnight on my hands somewhat like the way the fur of the ermine changes from dark to creamy white in winter.

"Perfume changes over time on skin and paper and this perfume finally dried down to a soft warmth that lasted overnight on my hands somewhat like the way the fur of the ermine changes from dark to creamy white in winter."

Musk perfumes are along  among  the most enduring of perfume types due to the depth and complexity of their ingredients. Musk perfumes are heavy, sensual, exotic and mysterious that express romance darkly and powerfully. The list of musk perfumes is a long one but for me amongst the best are L’Artisan Mure et Musc, Dior Poison (this one really divides opinions), Diptyque Eau Duelle, Serge Lutyens Muscs Koublai Khan, Fredric Malle Musc Ravageur and Secretion Magnifiques from Etat Libre d’Orange. Santa Maria Novella Sandalwood Soap is another great option if you want a gentler and cheaper introduction to the genre. Without a doubt the best way to experience the concept is to smell docile and damp animals in winter which leaves ermines out of the range of possibilities as ermines are in fact stoats in winter that have simply changed the colour of their fur but probably not their temperament.