The very arresting beauty and quite remarkable Marie Joséphine Rose Tascher de la Pagerie de Beauharnais (1763-1814) was imprisoned in the Bastille with her husband General Vicomte de Beauharnais during the French Revolution. He, and the men under his command were caught ‘whoring’ instead of carrying out the urgent and vital duties assigned to them.
At this time his punishment fell on the whole family and they were all incarcerated in the Bastille prison. Marie Joséph Rose Beauharnais and her two children narrowly escaped death because her friend the Comtesse Thérese de Fontenay protected her.
Thérese’s husband Jean Lambert Tallien, a key figure in the revolution, was responsible for bringing about the downfall of the Deputy of the Committee of Public Safety the so-called dictateur sanguinaire Maximilien Francoise Marie Isidore de Robespierre.
His particularly gruesome death face up on the guillotine ended the horrors of the ‘Reign of Terror’. Within days of that event Marie Joséph Rose was released to face a new world and to have a second chance at a whole new life. Two years later she married a dashing young Corsican General in the army Napoleon Bonaparte, whom she had met at the Tallien’s influential salon.
An impressive woman in her own right, Josephine (as Napoleon decided she should be known) would aid, through her influence and abilities, Napoleon’s route to power and would as well have a profound influence on the future of horticulture.
During their reign as Emperor and Empress of France Josephine spent vast sums of money acquiring plants (reputedly 3000 francs on one bulb) for her garden.
She introduced many new exotics into France, although their cultivation and acclimatization during her lifetime were mostly experimental.
Josephine had received substantial compensation for the losses incurred during her imprisonment in the Bastille, which allowed her to become a strong independent woman.
While her second husband Napoleon was on campaign in Egypt in 1798 Josephine acquired a lovely château with its own park at Malmaison, which was not far from Paris.
There in her own private world she became totally engrossed with the subject of botany, collecting and cultivating plants from all around the world.
‘It is a joy for me’, she said in 1804, ‘to see foreign plants multiply in our gardens. In ten years time I want to see that every French department owns a collection of precious plants initially grown in our nurseries’.
Despite the interruption of the Napoleonic Wars her plant collection increased from 50 varieties in 1805 to 132 by 1812.
Along with a great selection of European natives she planted trees and shrubs from Asia and the Americas, including the spectacular Chinese Magnolia denudata (1789), the American M. macrophylla and the sweet bay M. virginiana.
She purchased many of her plants from a nursery owned by James Lee and Lewis Kennedy in Hammersmith, London.
Amazingly during the war with France, Kennedy was provided with a special passport to go backwards and forwards to France and with careful instructions about how he could prevent the plants being damaged if he, and they were intercepted.
It is recorded Napoleon was, understandably, not pleased that Josephine, like her predecessor Queen Marie Antoinette, had a preference for English gardens (jardin anglais). It also seems he was exceedingly irritated by the fashion for English landscaping that was currently conquering France.
‘How silly’, he told his architect Pierre Leonard Fontaine, ‘to spend fortunes creating little lakes, little rocks and little rivers…my jardin a l’angalise is the forest at Fontainebleau and I want no other’.
In short Napoleon preferred nature as it was, not something contrived. Today there would be many who would more than likely support his point of view.
The forest of Fontainebleau he admired is located 60km south of Paris. Scattered with large interesting sandstone rocks it also inspired Impressionist painters of the nineteenth century in search of a natural landscape.
Today it remains a favourite nature reserve preserved for travelers and the French people.
Fontainebleau was also the site of the former Hunting Lodge of the Kings of France. It was expanded from a hunting box to accommodate the court of Francois 1 (1494-1547), who was undoubtedly the last product of chivalry and first modern King of France.
At Fontainebleau Francois 1 had collected around him men of letters, thinkers, humanists, painters and architects, each of whom had a part now to play in building up the setting against which the King wished to be seen.
Over the centuries since the palace complex had gradually evolved into a considerable estate.
Today the architectural style of the buildings and layout of its gardens reflect the changing attitudes, philosophies, fashions and passions of many of France’s rulers, as well as the skill of the many architects and tradesmen who have worked there.
Following the Revolution, Napoleon (1769-1821) found the Palace at Fontainebleau completely emptied of its furnishings.
From exile at St. Helena he later recalled life at Fontainebleau fondly…” here was a true home of kings, the best furnished and most happily situated ancient house in Europe”.
When Josephine and Napoleon spent time at Fontainebleau her love of horticulture shone through and she influenced the planting in its gardens too.
Tulips, whose origins were in Turkey, had been cultivated by the Dutch in the seventeenth century with great commercial success.
At Malmaison they featured in the borders their amazing colours and varieties dazzling with their display.
Architect Louis Berthault, created and transformed the gardens at the Château at Malmaison for Josephine.
He admired her genuine love for plants and flowers, one developed during her youth on the island of Martinique in the West Indies and he provided her with a wonderful layout.
The park was planted with great groves of tall trees that were interspersed with luxuriant lawns while exotic southern hemisphere black swans floated about beside pleasure boats on the lakes and canals besides northern hemisphere white swans.
With its tall trees, winding paths, and meandering river, the park surrounding the Château was an ideal setting for boating parties, outdoor lunches and the open air games, which Josephine organized for the numerous visitors including diplomats, ministers, scientists and artists.
Life at Château Malmaison must have indeed been wonderful during those halcyon days when Napoleon and Josephine were in residence.
Berthault designed a large hothouse fifty meters long and included working spaces for all the people Josephine employed.
In it she nurtured acacias, boronias, casuarinas, grevilleas, eucalypts and melalueucas from Australia and New Zealand and, as many as 50 species of pelargoniums and heaths from South Africa.
The plants from Australia came from the French expedition, which set out from Le Havre in France in October 1800.
Led by French explorer, cartographer, and hydrographer Nicolas-Thomas Baudin and Francois Peron when it returned in 1803 Josephine actively competed with the Muséum d’Histoire naturelle to obtain specimens of flora and fauna.
As well as plants she managed to gain kangaroos, emus and black swans, which built nests of sticks and reeds and laid fertile eggs following their arrival in the lake at Château Malmaison.
Josephine was so pleased with her swans she adopted them as an emblem about the house and gardens, in her bedroom, on her furniture, furnishings and ceramics.
The Baudin-Peron voyage is considered one of the great scientific expeditions of its time, producing a conveyor belt of new zoological, scientific and cultural knowledge from the antipodes.
This adventurous effort was an integral aspect of Napoleon’s vision to conquer and establish a new scientific empire in the southern hemisphere He was not alone.
Many other countries appraised the English colony strategically and today’s museums of the world retain a vast visual record of, what is now regarded as some of the greatest recorded journeys of scientific exploration the modern world had yet seen.
When Baudin was in Sydney he met English botanist Joseph Banks. On his voyage he also had an encounter with the voyage of English explorer and cartographer Matthew Flinders around Australia’s coastline. This took place off the coast of South Australia.
When the two ships met they cautiously identified themselves and a friendly meeting ensued, in spite of the two countries reputed enmity.
For Flinders and Baudin their passion for exploration and desire to contribute to expanding science overrode the ideologies of their nations.
At Château Malmaison Josephine employed Etienne Pierre Ventenat (11757-1808) as her chief botanist together with the renowned French botanical artist Pierre Josephe Redoute (1759-1840).
Their role was to record her plant collection.
The resultant Le Jardin de la Malmaison was published in 1803, written by Ventenat and illustrated by Redoute. This was the second time the two plant lovers had worked together. The first was their publication Description des plantes nouvelles et peu connues, cultivées dans le jardin de J.-M. Cels, published in 1799 recording the plants in the garden of French botanist Jacques Philippe Martin Cels, who cultivated foreign plants for sale to feed a growing public need.
Pierre Josephe-Redoute (1759-1840) was born in St. Hubert, Belgium and patronized by successive French courts from Louis XV to Louis-Phillipe.
He had been a personal tutor to Queen Marie-Antoinette, who loved roses, although her favourite flower was the humble blue English Cornflower, which she planted in her garden and had painted onto French porcelain.
Redoute was clever enough to remain apolitical in very difficult times, which no doubt helped him to survive the Reign of Terror.
Like fellow artist Jacques Louis David he achieved what would have been no mean feat in those days, survival, as just about anyone else who had previously worked for the Ancien Regime came under suspicion and was guillotined.
Redoute originally intended to establish a career in religious art. However, during his apprenticeship working in churches in Northern Europe painting frescoes and other decorations, he became so entranced by the flower paintings of the Dutch School he decided to change direction.
His ability to render flowers so delightfully and with such attention to their detail meant that he became, and has remained, famous.
Redoute’s superb rendering of the Christmas rose the beautiful, but modest Hellebores nigre was one of the many paintings that earned him the nomenclature, the Raphael of Flowers.
A native to the mountain woods in the eastern Alps and Balkans this delightful plant flowered as soon as the snow melted in spring.
Legend says that the rose sprouted in the snow from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem.
Redoute produced countless prints so that it could be used to adorn china, table mats and other decorative objects.
He also recorded the original four China roses from which most modern roses descend, known collectively as the ‘Stud Chinas’.
His finest achievement is generally considered to be the publication of Les Roses (1817-2).
And I will make thee beds of roses, And a thousand fragrant posies*
In all over 200 varieties of roses were planted at Château Malmaison under Josephine’s direction between 1804 and 1814.
She secured over 250 types of roses of which cuttings and root stocks were generously sent to parks and towns throughout France to create rose gardens for everyone.
French Roses bloom for only a comparatively short period, however they must have captivated the Emperor. He once offered a rose to Josephine as she sat in the garden with her relatives and ladies in waiting. It also appears he enjoyed distributing baskets of flowers to the ladies of his court.
As a result collecting baskets of flowers became a popular pastime in both France and in England.
Josephine’s favourite garden would remain and always be the one surrounding her Château at Malmaison, especially after the dreadful divorce from Napoleon, his exile and fall from grace.
At Malmaison she was secure, surrounded by both beauty and solitude.
Following her death the rose gardens at Château Malmaison fell into ruin although today they have been largely restored.
Thanks to her efforts the techniques for growing roses developed at Château Malmaison meant its varieties were able to be improved, simplified and added to so that today’s home gardeners can now grow spectacular ‘show roses’ without having to have an Empresses’ resources to do so.
The original French Bourbon rose traces its lineage to the reign of Louis-Philippe (1830 to 1848), when residents of Ile de Bourbon, now called Reunion Island, planted mixed hedges of China and damask roses that naturally cross-pollinated. The hips were sent to the king’s gardener in France, and the Bourbon class of roses was born.
The spectacular Bourbon rose Souvenir de la Malmaison, a perennial favourite today, was originally named for Josephine’s gardens at Château Malmaison. Jill, Duchess of Hamilton in her book Napoleon, the Empress and the Artist (1999) said of Empress Josephine…’The curiosity that Josephine showed for the natural sciences, especially botany, reveal an open mind and not, as her detractors like to portray, a frivolous one.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012 – 2014