This month, we sat with the "accidental botanist", Robbie Honey to talk about his first memories of scent, getting into floristry and his latest sale with AucArt, 'Arranged'.
What was your upbringing like and how has it influenced your work today?
I grew up in Zimbabwe and one of the many joys of an African childhood was that I was able to spend the majority of my free time barefoot outdoors. I didn’t particularly take to school and was happier gardening or climbing trees with my cat, Marmaduke. Over the years we looked after a menagerie of orphaned animals. We had a couple of vervet monkeys, Roger and Louis, who were always up no good, and we bottle-fed a shy pretty red duiker fawn, named Bambi. At 11 I became an avid orchid collector, focussing on indigenous tree orchids. I would set off into the bush climbing trees to collect them without realising that I required a permit to do so. Family friends still tell the story of a camping trip, when over the week I slowly palmed off the entire contents of my backpack to fill it with plants. So as a naturalist it was idyllic. My work has been and is hugely influenced by my childhood in Zimbabwe, seen in the colours, textures and wildness of compositions and the detail of my deconstruction series echoing my fascination of botanical minutiae studied in my childhood.
Tell us about your first memory of flowers?
Flowers have been ever-present in my life for as long as I remember and my earliest memories are of starting to grow plants and flowers age 4. In the garden of Maduma, the house I grew up in, grows a rather spectacular gnarled old Wisteria planted by my grandmother. Unlike England where every street has at least one Wisteria growing up a house, Wisteria is a rarity in Zimbabwe, and the brevity of its blooming makes it all the more precious. In the brief African Spring the bare winter branches of the Wisteria spike with an abundance of inflorescences, and coaxed by the warmer weather, these elongate and open into cascades of scented amethyst flowers. On spring days, after school I could be found perched atop the wall in the courtyard over which the Wisteria sprawled, surrounded by a sea of Lilac flowers, drunk on their scent and the utter beauty of it all.
How did you begin working with scents & fragrance?
I have an acute sense of smell and an interest in the scents of the natural world, as well as those in the world of fine perfumery. Back in 1997, I met Victoria Spencer on a flight from South Africa to London. She was later to give me my first scented candle – a Diptyque Figuier. I could not believe how accurately the aroma of a hot fig tree was captured in the candle’s wax; it instantly triggered memories of childhood holidays in the south of France. I knew then that one day I wanted to play the fragrance game, too. Years later, I set up a scented candle business with a friend creating believable reconstructions of the scents of flowers. Although I am not a nose, nor technically a perfumier, I have olfactory vision, knowledge, and a passion for scent.
What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice floristry? Was there a pivotal moment when you felt you’d found you’re ‘calling’?
It took a long and meandering path to land in my niche. Flowers were always my passion, but floristry wasn’t on the list of careers suggested, so I settled on becoming a rose farmer. I took an internship at a tissue culture and microbiology lab in Harare, where I learned the basics of micro-propagation. Then, at the age of 17, I went to Sparsholt College in Hampshire, UK, to study horticulture. Botany formed a small part of the course and I loved and excelled at it, but much of the main syllabus didn’t interest me. After a year I undertook some work experience on flower farms in Holland and Kenya, where I discovered that flower farming was much like any other form. My romantic illusions of being a rose farmer shattered, I knew that I wanted to work with plants, but wanted to do something creative. I returned to Zimbabwe to work for an interior decorator and garden designer duo. A year later I started my own landscaping company. 1995 saw a year of severe drought, which left the country with little water for gardening and no work for a garden designer. So, I set off to study interior design in Cape Town. There I discovered I did have an eye for colour, texture and design, however, the course also highlighted my difficulty with technical drawing. Hampered by dyscalculia, my struggle with numbers made drawing perspectives challenging, so I followed this with a year studying photography at art school. At the age of 23, with experience in horticulture, garden and interior design, and photography under my belt, I moved to London. Leafing through Tatler’s guide to ‘Who’s who’ in the UK party industry I thought it looked like an exciting career prospect. London florist, Ming Veevers Carter, agreed to take me on as an apprentice. Her approach to flowers was bold, contemporary, and exciting and she threw me into the deep end. I started work at 3 am and often found myself working seven days a week. I loved the work, and Ming had a significant influence on my emerging style. A year later, the 3 am starts became less appealing and, eager to see more of the industry, I started working freelance for other florists and began to pick up my own work. I set up my eponymous company in 2001 with all the blind confidence of youth and no real idea of what it would take to build and manage a business.
You’re originally from Zimbabwe and widely travelled, but where do you consider ‘home’?
Primarily Zimbabwe but I live in England. Whist I straddle both continents, I am not torn by one or the other, and I am equally at home in both countries.
Which is your first love – botany, floristry or design?
Design is something that I am passionate about but Botany is always my first love, hands down.
Tell us one thing few people know about you?
When I was 9 I was severely gored by a wild African Bush Pig and was sewn up with 100 stitches, I still have the scars to prove it.
You call yourself the “accidental botanist”, to what extent do you believe in fate?
I do believe that my love of plants is innate and preordained. I use the term “accidental” as although I did study a sliver of Botany whilst studying Horticulture, I am not an academic, and this is shown in my photographs which are not complete representations, nor are they meant to be. I capture what I perceive are the most beautiful attributes of a plant or flower.
How do you decide when a bouquet/arrangement is finished?
When it is balanced and well-edited. I believe that editing a bouquet when you think you have finished is good practice. It is not always about what you put in but what you take out and I think it is easy to fall into a habit of jamming an arrangement with too many flowers. Ming who trained me said that anyone can make an arrangement with an abundance of flowers, but it takes skill to create one with only a few blooms.
What is your favourite or most significant fragrance?
Surprisingly I rarely wear scent. If I do, I wear Philosykos by Diptyque. It’s a poetic ode to a fig tree: Capturing the green freshness of the leaves, the jammy flavour of the figs, with the density of the white wood – It is utterly transporting. Occasionally I wear Sel Marin by Heeley and on a hot day Tom Fords’ Neroli Portofino, it’s a classic eau de cologne and smells a little like savlon.
Something you cannot work without?
Who/what are your greatest influences?
I have many…Constance Spry a famous British educator, author, and florist, is a great influence. Her work continues to influence florists today. I am also a great admirer of my Friend Shane Conolly and his approach to floral decorating. He is guest curating an exhibition to commemorate the life of Constance Spry at the Garden Museum.
The deconstructed specimens in your book ‘The Accidental Botanist’ look like works of art themselves. To what extent are you influenced by visual art?
Although my deconstruction series happened organically it is surely influenced by historical botanical illustration and pressed herbarium specimens. Several years ago, I started sketching for ten minutes a day. My first drawing was of a ginger lily flower (Hedychium gardneranium). I absent-mindedly took it apart and drew the sum of its parts alongside my sketch of the flower. That was the start of the process, I believe, which has led to the collection of photographs which were all taken on an iPhone using natural light, When photographing a specimen, I make a quick initial layout; the result is usually quite crowded. However, this starting point allows me to familiarise myself with the plant material and how it fits together. I have two essential bits of equipment, a ruler to keep arrangements uniform, and tweezers to re-arrange the delicate elements. It takes about an hour and roughly 50 frames to create a well-resolved composition. Once achieved, my initial specimens have generally wilted, so I collect fresh material to deconstruct and arrange the elements on a clean sheet of textured pastel grey paper for the final frame.
Is important to note that my deconstructions are not academic or complete representations of each specimen, nor are they meant to be. I capture what I perceive are the most beautiful attributes of a plant or flower.
What kind of artwork do you like to surround yourself with/be in the company of?
The photographs of Irving Penn and Ron Van Donghen’s (I own a photograph of Irises by Van Donghen) their flower photographs are exquisite as are the line sketches of flowers by Elsworth Kelly. Winifred Nicholson is a huge inspiration and if I could paint she would be a strong influence.
Best and worst piece of advice you’ve been given?
That I could only start learning the piano when my arms were long enough to reach the end of the keys. By the time they could, I had lost all interest in learning music.
That less is more, I think but applies to so many areas of life. When I edit my deconstructions, the compositions with fewer elements are always the most successful.
Can you tell us about one of your most challenging commissions?
A wedding in Iceland. We decorated with 25000 white roses – we shipped our “studio” to Reykjavík and took a team of 17 florists to install the flowers. There were many moving parts…
The highlight of your career so far?
A collaboration I did with the fashion designer Mary Katrantzou creating a catwalk of 17000 carnations for London Fashion week. Mary’s collection featured prints of colourful spring tulip fields and my design for the catwalk emulated this, and my Book!
Is there a story behind your selection of artists/artworks chosen for your sale with AucArt?
I have chosen artists whose work I find intuitively beautiful.
Are there any links between visual and olfactory stimulation?
I don’t find that visual stimulation inspires an olfactory response, however, should I refer to my “scent memory” I can recall and conjure a scent in my mind and bring that to the fore.
Which scents would you consider essential for the home (if any)?
In Winter I love to fill my apartment with pots of scented Narcissi, I stagger planting the bulbs to have them in blooming indoors until the end of January.