The British natural perfumer, Alec Lawless, best known (outside of perfumery) for his appearance in the BBC Documentary series 'The Victorian Pharmacy', has died. Lawless, who was in his early fifties, died in an accident at the end of last month.
The author of ‘Being Led by The Nose
’, a well-respected introductory text on perfumery and blending, also taught perfume-making classes at his studio in Thrupp, near Stroud in the west of England. He was formerly married to Julia Lawless, the renowned aromatherapist (author of The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils) and he ran an essential oil company called ‘Acqua Oleum’
that supplied companies all over Europe. Alec’s interests also encompassed wine and food – friends and colleagues knew him to be an excellent cook. He gained a Diploma in Wine from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust
and said that learning about wine was one of the best olfactive training anyone could have. In addition to perfumery courses, Alec also enjoyed teaching wine appreciation. As many will testify, he was a natural teacher, with an endless supply of enthusiasm, humour and patience.
Alec's headquarters were at Griffin Mill, a disused 19th century woollen mill in the Costwolds, about 100 miles west of London. The space was beautifully decorated with wooden carvings bought on his travels and also housed a large room dedicated to meditation. As a frequent visitor to India and the Far East to find oils, Alec was very interested in Buddhism and eastern culture. He ran a meditation group called the Western Chan Fellowship group
, which met at his meditation centre at the mill. Alec also ran silent retreats, which he greatly enjoyed, despite being an outgoing person - he said that at first people were rather afraid of not speaking or making noise 'but you'd be surprised how easily people can become hooked on silence'.
Alec was a very proud father and grandfather – his daughter Natasha Lawless
is a talented artist who is already commercially successful though still in her early twenties. He, of course, doted on his small grand-daughter. In addition, he also leaves a partner, Denise. It was for her that he created the perfume La Joupe.
As part of the BBC series Victorian Pharmacy, in which Alec recreates a perfume that could have been made by a chemist shop in the Victorian era
, a perfume was produced - ‘Empress of India’,
that was available to buy in the shop along with his other creations. Alec also offered a bespoke perfume service, which was very popular as a gift.
To all who met him, his warmth and sense of fun were apparent – he made a series of instructional videos on You Tube
featuring his alter-ego, Boris The Perfumer.
Alec was aways horrified when he heard of people blending perfume to make an accord in an ‘intuitive’ way. He was firmly of the belief that perfumers should have a logical system in place (he used the Jean Carles method) as well a clear intention of what they were trying to achieve, so that they could judge success or failure against this intention. "It is true that occasionally a Jimi Hendrix comes along, but for the rest of us we must do some donkeywork to prepare the ground in our given field of study. Inspiration is borne from experience. For things to be intuitive you have to learn the book inside and outwards, forwards and backwards, then you can throw it away".
Alec also developed his own system for building a perfume which eschewed top middle and base notes, peferring instead his registered method of looking at blending
: 'heart, nuance and intrigue ®' ie. what the perfume is about at its heart, where the secondary interest lies, and intrigue, a hint of the unexpected to pique the curiosity.
Alec was not dogmatic about using natural materials, his perfumes contained botanical extracts and alcohol, which some natural perfumers choose not to use. He also sometimes used perfume bases which had a very slight amount of aroma chemicals in them, just to give the perfume a lift. He provided an invaluable service to many budding perfumers, not just with advice, but by suppling them with ready-aged alcohol, which allowed them to smell their creations in 'real-time' cutting down significantly on maceration time.
I had the great privilege of doing a one week perfume-making course with Alec last month, which I was going to write about for Basenotes as part of our on-going series on courses. He was a truly wonderful person, warm, with a great sense of humour and I feel extremely sad that I didn't get to develop my friendship with him. His passing is a great loss for us all.
Katie Puckrik of Katie Puckrik Smells writes:
Alec was truly a "real" person, no BS, and I adored his passion both for perfume making and traveling the world to source raw ingredients. It was clear from his writing that he regarded perfume making as a kind of creative cultural anthropology -- and a great excuse to have an adventure!
I often pinged Alec with email questions about raw materials, and on more than one occasion he kindly sent me samples from his stash so that I could learn for myself. Once when we were enthusing back and forth on the glories of jasmine sambac, he made an observation on how much pleasure smells could give us: “It really is fun isn’t it?”
Alec loved what he did, and was very generous in sharing his knowledge and joy. The following are two extracts from his emails to me that illustrate his playfulness:
“Phenyl ethyl alcohol from rose Otto smells like polystyrene, but once that chemical is mentioned in regard to Otto it ruins it for people because that’s all they can smell. Centuries of romantic Arabian encounters killed in a stroke by a ceiling tile.”
“Some people get a bit anal when classifying, saying that galbanum shouldn’t be classified as agrestic because it’s from Iran. I have it as agrestic because I’m in favour of world peace and more importantly, it reminds me of the fresh, green smell that I got when I fell off my bicycle as a child in a cow parsley and nettle patch. The smell lingers long after the sting has gone. If I was head of training in one of the 'Big 6', all perfumers would have to take that ride.”
Alec was a talented teacher and communicator who will be deeply missed.
Michael Donovan of Profile PR writes
They say that everyone loves a sailor and with Alec this was certainly the case! He was, quite simply, a force of nature and approached fragrance with same fervour as he did everything in life. Incredibly knowledgeable, in fact a walking Rolodex of natural ingredients, his passion for scent was infectious and his gift for spinning a good yarn legendary! Alec was charming, he had a very real gift when it came to dealing with people, a gift that made his bespoke service very popular. Creating a fragrance for an individual requires an immediate intimacy and Alec made this easy and natural – you felt like you were old friends in minutes.
Perfumer, author, gourmand & wine connoisseur, Alec was well travelled and 'lived large' - his fragrance collection reflects this, leaping from their bottles, little olfactory celebrations of the finest natural ingredients from the four corners of the globe. My sincere condolences to his family and many friends – his is a sad loss indeed.
Liz Moores of Papillon Perfumery writes
"Alec was a truly wonderful man and I learnt a huge amount from him. In an industry where there a quite a lot of secrets and professionals are loathe to share insider tips, Alec was completely generous with his vast knowledge and always had time to answer even the most stupid questions I would ask. He encouraged me to really go for it with Papillon. He was always hugely supportive and I will never forget that."
Grant Osborne, founder of Basenotes writes
I was deeply shocked when I found out about his sad passing last month. I first met Alec in the Summer of 2009, he joined us on a 'Basenotes Lunch' - a tour around London perfumeries, with a spot of lunch in the middle. I don't think anyone who joined us on that day will ever forget Alec. He was larger than life, and came with not only a good sense of humour, but he'd brought along his good range of perfume.
I remember some of us had the chance to sniff his scents over lunch, and I recall lots of people re-sniffing their arms over the course of the afternoon. For many, those were their favourite fragrances we sniffed out of many in that day.
The last time I met Alec was at last years FiFi Awards, where one of his fragrances was nominated as a finalist in the niche category, which Basenotes helped organise that year. He told me - and I mean told! - that I had to come down to his lab sometime. I never did, and will always regret the opportunity. I only met Alec twice, and spoke on the phone a handful of times, but it felt like I'd known him a lot longer, such is the impact he made.
Rest in Peace, Alec.
Our thoughts and wishes are with the friends and family of Alec.
You can read an interview with Alec Lawless from 2010 here