June 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Art for the nose

By Ceridwen Dovey
Art for the nose
Master perfumer Jonathon Midgley concocts some unusual scents

The scents of the seven deadly sins, in miniature sampling vials of varying shades of amber and green, are arranged on my work desk. In preparation for interviewing Jonathon Midgley, a master perfumer whose Brisbane laboratory was commissioned to create these scents for a theatre company, I sniff each sin in turn. I accidentally spill some Sloth on my computer keyboard (it smells like musty mothballs), which I fear does not bode well for my productivity this year.

“What does it say about me that I find Greed the best smelling of the bunch?” I ask Midgley later.

He laughs. “Greed is meant to smell good – so good you can’t get enough of it. It’s actually a fine fragrance for men, and it is lovely, with grassy, fresh, metallic notes. I put in some lavender oil and lavender absolute, quite a lot of musk, and tiny bits of thyme oil and spearmint oil for that herbal lift.”

Envy is smoky and bitter, with an ivy leaf base; Gluttony has chocolate tones; Lust is made with white musk, which gives it “spicy semen notes”; Pride is the smell of new car, which Midgley’s laboratory had been commissioned to make for a car polish manufacturer; and Wrath uses cedarwood aromatics to re-create the smell of burnt bushland, a scent he had previously composed for a bushfire display at the Queensland Museum.

Midgley has always had a powerful sense of smell, and a fascination with scents. Attending theology college in Wellington, New Zealand, after high school, he was struck by the passages in Exodus where God gives Moses the recipes for incense and anointing oil (“Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 500 shekels of cassia – all according to the sanctuary shekel – and a hin [sic] of olive oil”).

On mid-semester break, while visiting his grandmother in Pakuranga, Midgley noticed some “weird smells” coming from a little factory in the neighbourhood. He had inadvertently stumbled on Flairoma, a custom manufacturer of fragrances and perfumes, founded by master perfumer Bruce Spencer. Midgley asked to come in for a visit, and was “blown away” by Spencer’s laboratory. “Thousands of bottles lining the walls, and a traditional U-shaped organ room, with an extremely sensitive weighing machine sitting at the curve of the U,” he remembers. “Bruce taught me that it is much more accurate to compose perfume by weight, not volume. You need a machine that is so sensitive it can measure the difference in weight between a blank piece of paper and one with a few words written on it.”

Spencer immediately noticed that Midgley had perfect olfactory memory, the olfactory equivalent of having perfect pitch. “If you say ‘rose’, I instantly know what a rose smells like,” Midgley explains, “and I can retain the memory of that aroma in my mind, and reconstruct it.”

With Spencer’s help, Midgley re-created the Bible’s recipe for anointing oil, diluted with olive oil, as God suggests, as well as solid incense, from frankincense, myrrh and spikenard.

After being expelled from theology college (“Why? I asked too many questions. Also, I sat with a girl in church, and I was hiding my long hair beneath a wig”), Midgley began to reproduce the perfumes of ancient Egypt in unguent form and sold tiny ceramic pots of them at trade fairs around New Zealand. “My wife and I were living in the country, and we were crazy hippies – we’d spend hours hand-painting the labels and cutting little cork stoppers for these pots.”

He and Spencer stayed in touch over the years, and Spencer tutored him in how to write formulae for fragrances, and how to compound samples. “I wanted to re-create the scent of honeysuckle, so I’d take my formula to Bruce and he’d mark it like a schoolteacher.”

Midgley moved to Australia in the late 1970s, where he was able to get a licence to purchase ethanol, and this enabled him to make liquid perfumes, which he sold at local markets in Brisbane for a “horribly long time”. His first big break came in 1982. In anticipation of Brisbane hosting the Commonwealth Games, Midgley developed Lyre, a perfume capturing the heady scent of Brisbane’s streets – bauhinia, wattle, boronia and frangipani flowers – in a limited edition of 100 hand-blown bottles by renowned glass artist Peter Goss. (Bottle number one was given to the Queen at the Games, and the perfume and bottles are now collector’s items.)

One day, he was given a commission to create a perfume for a haircare product, in large quantities, and demand from similar clients grew.

Eighty per cent of Damask Perfumery’s business now comes from these kinds of industrial fragrance commissions. The laboratory also creates bespoke fine fragrances for individual clients who want a unique scent. “I had a client from way out west Queensland who had encountered a native fern, and he’d run his fingers through it and thought it smelled gorgeous. So he brought me some of the plant in a lunchbox, and I reproduced a fine fragrance of it for him to wear.”

Over the years, Midgley’s laboratory has worked on some pretty unusual scent commissions, including men’s fragrances based on the smell of hops for a craft beer festival, a fine fragrance to accompany boutique, custom-designed surfboards, and a signature perfume for the female lead singer of an Eastern European heavy metal band. The lab has re-created the smell of horse poo and old mutton fat for museum exhibitions, and mimicked the aromas of human blood and treacle for an art installation.

“We’re a bit Gothic up here,” says Midgley, who has long white hair and, along with many of Damask Perfumery’s compounders, wears a lot of black.

More recently, Sea Life Sydney Aquarium commissioned him to re-create the smell of dugong breath for a fiberglass dugong display that featured a button visitors could press to experience the aroma of a dugong burp. Midgley researched what the aquarium’s dugongs eat – mainly cos lettuce – and came up with a seaweedy, lettucy scent. Then the aquarium sent him a couple of bags of dugong poo, and asked him to re-create, for use in the same display, the smell of dugong flatus (comprising solid prawn paste in a 5% solution for “that real fishy, farty smell”, a tincture from oyster shells, and a tiny amount of a chemical called skatole, which occurs naturally in faeces and is used “in all the famous French fine fragrances to give that subliminal hint of human”).

It was a hit, and soon Underwater World Sea Life Aquarium in Queensland commissioned the smell of seal breath for a similar exhibition. “We went up and met Groucho, a giant seal,” Midgley says. “I got down to his level and looked into his eyes – I could see his intelligence shining in them – and then he started huffing on me so I could smell his breath.” Midgley and one of his compounders immediately brainstormed, and came up with the following descriptors: floral, salty, forest undergrowth, long-term smoker’s breath, fresh wet dog, cup-of-black-tea breath.

Michael Edwards, the eminent Australian fragrance expert and author of Fragrances of the World, has described Midgley as having “a conviction that leads to an individual signature”, and says that “his fragrances challenge your nose, like a fine wine”.

“I view what I do as art for the nose instead of art for the eyes,” says Midgley. “Sight, hearing and smell are the three primary senses, but usually we focus mostly on sight and sound. I like to think of myself as an olfactory artist.”

Sense of smell is an ancient component of the nervous system, part of “the reptilian brain”. Of all the human senses, smell is the only one with a direct link or shortcut to the part of the brain that controls emotions, such as fear or sexual attraction, as well as long-term memory – which is why Edwards describes perfume as “liquid emotion”.

As a young man, Midgley was obsessed with a 19th-century French novel, Against the Grain (À Rebours), by JK Huysmans. The main character, Jean des Esseintes, after many years of decadent living in Paris, withdraws to an isolated house in the countryside, where he vows to spend the rest of his life in reclusive contemplation of art, literature and philosophy. He also makes perfumes, believing the “sense of smell [i]s qualified to experience pleasures equal to those pertaining to the ear and the eye”. The book was Midgley’s other, much more decadent, Bible in his youth.

Midgley is studying religion again, and continues to be drawn to holy oils and incense from all religious traditions. “I think there must be a link between our sense of smell and religious feeling. Why else would all the major religions use fragrances in their rituals and places of worship? Whatever God you worship, these scents can make worshippers feel peaceful, and closer to the divine.”

Ceridwen Dovey

Ceridwen Dovey is the author of Blood Kin, Only the Animals and In the Garden of the Fugitives. Her latest book is Writers on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee.

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