From fragrance to fine art

Her family is synonymous with luxury cosmetics and perfume. So what happened when Marie Guerlain broke the mould to become a painter?
I’m like every other artist out there,’ says the strikingly chic Marie Guerlain. ‘In the beginning, it was a struggle. You’ve got to make a name for yourself and sell your works to be taken seriously. It doesn’t just happen overnight.’

Of course, one could say that Marie’s name was ‘made’ more than a century ago. She is part of the 6th generation of the Guerlain dynasty, which has been creating luxury cosmetics and perfume since 1828.

But fine fragrance does not necessarily translate into fine art. ‘My family name wasn’t an asset at all,’ Marie states. ‘Just because you have a recognisable name, it doesn’t mean you are going to jump the queue. That’s not how the art world works.’

But Guerlain’s talent shone through, and her work has been exhibited in a host of coveted locations, including New Bond Street, Brick Lane and the superlative Cork Street. The works are proving commercially successful too, with individual pieces selling for up to £20,000.

But lest it all sounds too easy, Guerlain has also had to deal with a very particular form of criticism. ‘This world is full of contradictions. You are given a hard time if you are from a certain background and not doing anything, but when you do try, then you are given a hard time about that, too.

‘I want to work. I’ve been taught hard-working ethics from my family. We all believe you have to do something with your life.’

It would be easy to assume that Guerlain’s international lifestyle bears little resemblance to that of a struggling artist, or indeed the vast majority of people. She was born in Paris and brought up in London and Switzerland, and has packed more travel into her 36 years than most people would manage in a lifetime. Yet she is unpretentious, soulful and easy to talk to. How has she managed to keep so level-headed?

‘My parents did a good job of protecting us from any overexposure or craziness,’ she explains. ‘We led a really normal life and we are all very earthy.’ A huge part of her childhood was also spent immersed in artistic endeavours: ‘My mother has always said to me that I was drawing before I could walk. It has always been part of me.’

How would she describe her style? ‘I’ve had different labels put on my work and I don’t really know where it fits, to be honest. It’s a mixture of realism and surrealism, and moving towards abstract at the moment.’

The therapeutic power of art is also something Marie Guerlain feels strongly about, not least because she’s experienced it first hand. She was living and attending art school in New York in 2001, and was a witness to the tragedy of 9/11. ‘I couldn’t quite believe what was going on. We all thought it was the end of the world.

‘The reality and the enormity of the situation hit me afterwards. It was a very big event in my life. And I did paint a lot about it as well. That’s why I’m a huge advocate of art therapy for children who have been abused, because I know the healing powers it has.’

Guerlain’s charity work is far more than the token effort expected of society heiresses. She has thrown herself into projects with Starlight Children’s Foundation, and was appointed the UK executive director of NGO , Innocence In Danger. She has recently become a patron of the Marie Collins foundation – a new charity that aims to combat the escalating threat of bullying through the internet and social media. ‘Any way I can help, I try,’ she says.

With her reputation flourishing in both the art and charity worlds, it seems Marie Guerlain is redefining her surname. ‘I am very proud of my heritage but I’m also trying to create my own story.’

Marie’s inner and outer beauty lives up to her surname, but her drive is all her own. and