FREDERIC LEIGHTON was many things during his life: a painter, a sculptor, a baron, a bachelor. He was not a perfumer, though his legacy did act as the catalyst for Jo Malone London’s latest perfume, a sensual “floriental” scent that, as with all of the house’s wares, is named for its chief components: Mimosa & Cardamom. It was a 2009 trip to Leighton’s former home, now a museum called Leighton House Museum, that first planted a seed in the mind of Jo Malone Fragrance Director Celine Roux. “I thought the place was just magic. But there was no place for it [in the Jo Malone family] really; it was not part of the projects at that time.” But yet the setting lingered in her memory, a space, Oriental in influence, that acted as so much more than home for the artist – it was a studio in which he conceived of and executed his artwork; a showroom in which he displayed the wares he collected on travels to the Middle East, Africa and further; a grand receiving venue in which he hosted parties.
Every which way you turn presents new curiosities: a wall covered in 16th-century Turkish tiles of white, vivid cerulean blue and gold; imposing marble and stone columns both functional and aesthetic; a domed ceiling from which hangs a medieval chandelier; Persian rugs to add colour and dimension; and then, of course, there are the paintings. Leighton’s paintings are displayed in this cacophonous antithesis to the typical white-box environment, and include the 1895 canvas, and Leighton’s most recognisable composition, Flaming June. This is the painting, said to represent Leighton’s response to Michelangelo’s famed erotically nuanced portrait Leda and the Swan, that in turn hit a chord with Jo Malone nose Marie Salamagne, when Roux brought her to Leighton House. “Flaming June was particularly inspiring,” she says. “I liked the idea of travelling through the picture to discover the vivid colour, texture and atmosphere of the interiors, and wanted to recreate these layers in the scent.” Roux asked Salamagne to create a fragrance based on this bohemian spirit – the wanderlust that led Victorians such as Leighton around the world in adventures and explorations, collecting exotic and exciting objects like those left behind in his restored home.
Bottling the essence of the British bohemian is no easy feat, especially when considering that one of the basic tenets of any Jo Malone perfume is that it needs to be buildable; easily combined and layered with the house’s other fragrances or lotions. “The more simple you are, the more difficult it is,” reminds Salamagne. “It’s challenging, but it’s how you make interesting fragrances.” Florientals, almost by definition, are complex, combining the sweetness of florals with the sensuality and intensity inherent in the musks, vanillas and woods associated with Oriental scents. Salamagne knew from the beginning that she had to veer from traditional blooms like orange blossom, jasmine or rose. She immersed herself, as is the Jo Malone way, in stories and characters from Marrakesh and Tangiers, “bohemian havens in the ’60s for people such as the Rolling Stones”. She devoured literature on and images of the likes of fashion designer Thea Porter, ’60s actress and style icon Talitha Getty, and Yves Saint Laurent muse Loulou de la Falaise, pioneers of the bohemian chic we know today.
Frederic Leighton was not a literal man. As Frick Collection senior curator Susan Grace Galassi wrote in her catalogue notes about Flaming June, “Leighton was mainly concerned with creating beauty rather than conveying a message”, and yet his works speak volumes without words. Mimosa & Cardamom adopts the same approach – powdery and spiced, fresh yet polished, it conjures images of freedom rather than bashing you over the head with olfactory associations. In fact, the personal reference that Salamagne had for the mimosa had nothing to do with the bohemian movement in the least.
“I had a strong memory of the mimosa flower ... it has always reminded me of my childhood and winter weekends spent near the coast in the South of France. Behind its apparent fragility, the flower captures a strong feminine energy”, Salamagne says. If the idea of the perfume required a crashcourse in the work of Frederic Leighton, then the investigation of the perfume’s main ingredient certainly begged equal study.
“We should get immersed,” said Roux. And so the duo packed their bags, and like those bohemians whose spirit they sought to capture, headed on an adventure, to the mimosa fields in the South of France. There, they found their strain of choice, and perfected the art of extracting the mimosa absolute, the concentrate from which the fragrance is made. It’s all done within two hours of plucking the blooms, so that the smell is as “close to nature” as possible.
“You have this very feminine, fluffy, powdery note from the mimosa,” explains Roux, “versus the freshness of the cardamom, which is more used often for the masculine and the cologne market.” Cardamom, naturally, has more overt Oriental origins, but it isn’t overly typical of its family – rather, it infuses the mimosa with green, sparkling tones that make it more complex but not more complicated. Alongside the top note of cardamom, the fragrance borrows infusions of nymphaea – water lily – and violet leaves. At the heart, mimosa melds with the romance of damask rose and the sweet, almost vanillalike smell of heliotrope; fading into base notes of tonka bean, sandalwood and white musk. “Tonka bean absolute,” Salamagne offers, “[is] a classic floriental ingredient that is very refined and elegant, and gives the fragrance its oriental character. Warm, balsamic, almondy and vanillic, its richness is irresistibly addictive.”
Even with time, the fragrance never descends into purely base impulses – like a whimsical bohemian spirit, it floats into different fragrance families seamlessly without settling in one mould.
To give it even more of a unique character, naturally the perfume’s makers have a few scent layering ideas up their sleeve – after all, Jo Malone London so champions its perfumes’ adaptability that it trademarked the term “Fragrance Combining”, capital letters and all. For day, Salamagne adds a spritz of English Pear & Freesia, boosting the floral content and adding some light fruit notes. Red Roses is another option, for a more purely feminine and floral bouquet. As night falls, Salamagne prefers to pair Mimosa & Cardamom with Tuberose Angelica from the Cologne Intense range, which creates a floral with depth and warmth and richness. Of course, these are just guidelines. The mark of a true bohemian, Roux says with a smile, is finding “things that are not meant together ... but it works”.