In 1796 the French widow of Alexandre de Beauharnais who was guillotined during the Reign of Terror, Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie (1763-1814) at Paris married the dashing Corsican, Napoléon Bonaparte, who was an up and coming military leader.
He was 26 and she was 32. He disliked her first names so in 1798 when he was on campaign in Egypt, he started a letter to her …
‘At seven in the morning: Sweet and incomparable Josephine, I awake full of you and of the memory of our intoxicating night...’.
Josephine was a new age woman who displayed her independence of mind by purchasing the lovely park at Malmaison for herself, together with its simple but stylish Château while Napoleon was away on campaign. He was furious, but was won over as she gradually transformed the house and park into an estate of great beauty.
She also set about avidly studying the subject of botany. It is recorded Napoléon was not very pleased with her for preferring to create an English garden (jardin anglais). He was irritated too that so many other people began to emulate her fashionable taste.
“How silly”, Napoleon said to 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”.
Napoleon much preferred the natural world to remain exactly as it was and he also required that his built environment did the same.
While he was the great creator of European change himself and, flexible enough to cope with either sleeping in a glamorous bed in a château or in an army tent on campaign, some things for him always remained immutable.
At the Château de Malmaison Josephine collected and cultivated plants from all around the world. She planted three flowers that recalled her husband’s conquests; the Lily of the Nile, Parma violets and Damietta roses.
The majority of plants introduced into these gardens were ordered through James Lee and Lewis Kennedy’s Vineyard Nursery at Hammersmith a suburb of London, an establishment known for pioneering many Australian plants.
A Scottish born botanist James Lee (1715 – 1795) became famous in England for propagating the delightful shade loving fuschia, a plant brought home from the West Indies as a present for his wife. It became a favourite plant during the eighteenth century, especially in English gardens after 1788. By association, it also transposed into many early Australian gardens.
Today Josephine’s relationship with the nursery at London remains a ‘curiosity’ of garden history. When England went to war with France and Napoléon careful instructions were issued by the British admiralty to allow plants from the nursery of Lee and Kennedy, which were on their way to Josephine at Malmaison, to pass all barriers.
We might think this behaviour highly unusual among so-called enemies. However during the time it was part of a posture of correct behaviour that existed at the highest echelons of society, including rival Kings and Queens.
It was primarily about the advancement of humanity through scientific investigation, which had become an integral aspect of countries who saw themselves as world leaders at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
This attitude practically transcended all other agendas, even during periods of political animosity French and English botanists continually communicated and collaborated with each other.
They set a scene of affirmation and the following story informs this reality: in 1791 a French expedition to Australia included botanist Jacques-Julien Labillardiere.
It was about fate and bad timing for France’s King Louis XVI who had sanctioned the journey in search of the lost ships of Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse. Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (1739 – 1793) was its leader.
They failed to find any trace of the missing expedition, but the ships visited southwest Australia and Tasmania where Labillardière, Claude Riche and Étienne Pierre Ventenat collected zoological, botanical and geological specimens.
They were all put into a pretty pickle when they were given the news of a revolution and reign of terror existed in France when they docked at Surabaya in Java.
d’Entrecasteaux died of scurvy before landfall and it was on the 18 February 1794 that its new commander d’Auribeau handed the vessels to the Dutch, Britain’s allies, so that the new French Government could not profit by them. Chaos ensued and the crew and its botanists were put under house detention.
Throughout the time at Java Labillardiere maintained a highly professional and academic approach. He carefully and meticulously recorded detailed descriptions of the plants he had collected in his journal.
He also wrote a letter to his friend the well known botanist Sir Joseph Banks at Kew Gardens in London thanking him for his previous advice in the preparation of his voyage and informing him about the sad news that his work of the last three years had been seized.
Kew Gardens at London was at the time under Banks’s direction.
It was the main repository for the living plant material wealth of the British Empire. The letter would take two years to reach Banks and by then Britain would be at war with both Holland and France.
The plants were unloaded in England in November 1795, preceding Labillardiere’s letter to Banks. The French King in exile requested the collection be presented to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III.
She demanded that Banks examine them and he recommended she accept them. In the meantime Labillardiere’s letter to Banks arrived at Kew Gardens, where Banks was put into a quandry as well.
While he was committed to acquiring the collection for his Queen, on the other hand as a scientist he also felt obliged to help his fellow botanist and friend.
As a result of both Bank’s wisdom and diplomatic intervention Britain offered an olive branch to the Directoire, the body of men now ruling France following the execution of Louis XVI.
They offered to restore the plants and Labillardiere settled back at Paris where he worked on his opus – the first major account of Australian flora ever published in two volumes (1804 and 1806).
Josephine became Empress of France in 1804 and the most brilliant society of France gathered around her to confirm her husband’s power. Her plant cultivation at the Château de Malmaison was in full swing, and that included growing from seed a selection of plants that had also arrived from Australia, one named for Lewis Kennedy of London – Kennedya rubicunda.
For over a decade Empress Joesphine’s fifty metre long greenhouse played an important role in the development of plants and the evolution of botany.
“It is a joy for me“, Josephine said in 1804, “to see foreign plants multiply in our gardens. In ten years time I want every French department to own a collection of precious plants initially grown in our nurseries.”
Josephine spent vast sums of money acquiring plants (reputedly 3000 francs on one bulb).
She introduced many exotics into France and personally oversaw their cultivation and acclimatisation. The rare species included a double white form of a Chinese Mountain Peony, which she introduced into France long before it arrived in England (1840).
Beside robust European natives she planted trees and shrubs from Asia and the Americas, including the Chinese Magnolia denudata (1789), the American M. macrophylla and sweet bay M.virginiana.
Josephine was one of the earliest to propagate dahlias, obtaining seeds of species direct from Mexico through the botanical explorers Aimé Bonpland and Friedrich Humboldt.
She reputedly found a bulb in a Paris market, which was later named the scarlet Brunsvigia josephinae and brought it along together with some fifty species of pelargoniums and heaths from South Africa.
The plants she was particularly passionate about were those from New South Wales, which included native acacias, boronias, casuarinas, grevilleas, eucalypts and melalueucas.
They arrived in France from the antipodes as a result of explorer and plant hunter Nicolas Thomas Baudin’s expedition.
He had persuaded Napoleon to mount a second expedition to the antipodes and he succeeded mainly because, even in his early days as Consul of France Napoleon wanted to expand his visions of empire.
He was not alone. The Russians, Spanish and Americans all appraised the new Australasian colony, established by the British in 1788, strategically at the time.
Amazingly prior to 2001 few people in Australia had ever heard of the expedition that came here under the guidance of French Commander Baudin who, along with twenty two naturalists including nine zoologists, left Le Havre on the 19 October 1800 in the ships Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste.
They reached Australia in May 1801 and set about charting the coastline and collecting plants.
In April 1802 they had a historic meeting with English cartographer Matthew Flinders, who was carefully and meticulously charting the coastline for Britain.
Baudin stopped at the colony established in Farm Cove at Sydney during winter, where he made friends while carefully preparing plant specimens he had recovered to send them home, along with assorted Australian wildlife, via the crew of the Naturaliste.
The tangible outcome was the delivery of Australian seeds to Empress Josephine by Captain Hamelin who successfully grew many of them, including the spectacular Hibiscus heterophyllus.
Baudin showed great foresight because as it turned out he perished on the homeward voyage. The disappointing published accounts of the journey were completed by Francois Peron and Louis de Freycinet, who had been members of his party.
However they did not refer to Baudin due to personal conflicts and the state of politics following their return. This meant he was entirely overlooked by history for a very long time.
In its day Baudin’s journey was undoubtedly the greatest journey of scientific exploration the world had yet seen and the exhibition Terre Napoléon – Australia through French Eyes 1800-1804 held at the Sydney Museum in 2001 finally opened many people’s eyes to his efforts. Josephine certainly did not allow politics to impinge on her plans for plant production at Château de Malmaison, where her architect Louis Berthault, was busy transforming the gardens for her in the romantic style. He perfectly understood the atmosphere she wished to create.
He admired her genuine love for plants and flowers, which had been first developed during her childhood spent at Martinique an island in the West Indies.
With its tall trees, winding paths, and meandering river, the park of Malmaison was an ideal setting for the many boating parties, outdoor lunches and open air games organized by Josephine for the numerous guests her husband wished her to entertain, including military leaders, politicians, diplomats, ministers, scientists, military colleagues, friends and artists.
She employed Etienne Pierre Ventenat (11757-1808) who had been on the illfated trip to Australia with Labillardiere as her chief botanist, together with the talented botanical artist, Pierre Josephe Redoute (1759-1840). Their task was to record her extensive and flourishing plant collection for posterity.
Pierre Josephe-Redoute (1759-1840) in his day was considered the premier flower painter at Paris in France. He had originally intended to make his career in religious art, but while working in churches in Northern Europe painting frescoes and other decorations, he became entranced by the flower paintings of the Dutch School.
He was appointed personal tutor to Queen Marie-Antoinette, Master Draughtsman to the Queen’s Court and Professor of Plant Iconography at the Royal Gardens.
His considerable ability to remain apolitical helped him survive events surrounding the revolution and he became teacher to the Empress Josephine as well as Napoleon’s second wife, the Empress Marie Louise.
Josephine’s botanical tastes, as interpreted for his patroness by Redoute, had a huge impact on the plants that began to adorn Paris’s public gardens.
There, following the vigour’s and uncertainties of the 1790’s, Parisians were resuming the custom of afternoon strolls, meetings and personal diversions.
The Tuileries gardens became, like all other public gardens, a peaceful place for festivity where the release of hot air balloons and firework displays thrilled an attentive audience.
Officers in elaborate uniforms, women in the latest classical fashion and children with their hoops, formed a colourful and attentive crowd and the imperial family (Napoleon, Josephine and her two children by her first marriage) were often seen walking with a huge following trailing in their wake.
Redoute’s finest achievement is generally considered to be the publication of Les Roses (1817) in which he recorded the four China roses from which most modern roses descend. These are known collectively as the ‘Stud Chinas’.
China roses generally flower continuously on smallish bushes and their flowers are loose and informal, although often nicely pointed in the bud. In temperate climates they are virtually evergreen, although frost tender in colder areas.
In all over 200 varieties of roses were planted at Malmaison between 1804 and 1814. Of these one hundred and seven were forms of the genus Rosa gallica, thirty two were Centifolias, eight were Damasks, seven were Albas and twenty were Chinas. The remaining number came from a wide varieties of species, including the petite pimpinellifolia.
French roses usually only bloom for a comparatively short period, however their foliage is luxuriant right through the season into winter.
ln its day Malmaison became a showpiece for exotic animals from around the world. The menagerie included a kangaroo, an ostrich and a trained orang-outang who wore a coat and skirt, curtsied and ate at a table.
However it was the roses that had become Josephine’s first and foremost interest, and the results she and her experts achieved there are today considered remarkable.
In the glory days at Malmaison Napoleon had offered Josephine a rose as she sat in her garden with her relatives and ladies in waiting. In 1809, the year of her divorce from Napoleon, he presented her with some 800 plants and hundreds of seeds.
As a leader of fashion in every sense what she grew, other people wanted to grow as well and, it is entirely appropriate the first Australian plant grown in Europe was at Malmaison and was given the name Josephinia Imperatrcicis.
Josephine lived at the Château de Malmaison following her painful divorce from Napoleon because she was unable to provide him with an heir. Her cultivation of plants ended abruptly with her death in 1814 from pneumonia contracted during a walk with the Russian Czar Alexander in her gardens. Her Australian plants were distributed all over France following her death, particularly along the Cote D’Azur as well as other countries around the Mediterranean. The techniques first developed by Josephine at the Château de Malmaison for the cultivation of flowers have since been improved, simplified and added to. Today any home gardener can grow spectacular ‘show roses’ without the resources of an Empress.
Her rose gardens fell completely into ruin when she died, although today they have been by and large restored as visitors flock to view the Château where she achieved so much. It seems entirely appropriate that a rose would be the perfect plant to honour the personal endeavour and enterprise of a lovely lady.
The ravishing rose Souvenir de la Malmaison also only came into existence following her death, but it was named for her and today grows in the gardens of her beloved château.
Josephine and her plants were also immortalized in a book entitled Jardin de la Malmaison, with stunning colour engravings painted by her friend, the artist Pierre Josephe Redoute. As for Napoléon, well it is said that when talking to a friend while in exile on Saint Helena he said “I truly loved my Joséphine, but did not respect her.”
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010-2013