Historical literature tells us that Josephine Bonaparte (1763 – 1814), who became the Empress of France between 1804 and 1809 as the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, is remembered for her extensive rose gardens which displayed all the roses known at the time. Strangely there appears to be no list of the roses that Josephine grew. There also seems to be few records of her rose gardens or her desire to grow all roses. Could her beautiful and extensive rose gardens at Malmaison, outside Paris, be a myth.
Undoubtedly Josephine, inspired by her ownership of Malmaison from 1799 to her death in 1814, became interested in plants, trees and shrubs to the point of wanting to collect as many exotic species as possible. She gathered plants from across the world to grow in her gardens which she had designed in the English style by a Scottish horticulturalist Thomas Blaikie. The parkland style of Capability Brown suited the huge acreage of Malmaison well and, together with the huge orangery and greenhouses she had built, accommodated Josephine’s exotic trees and shrubs. Her plants such as eucalyptus, heathers and myrtles, hibiscus, phlox, camellias, geraniums, cacti, rhododendrons, dahlias, tulips and hyacinths were catalogued by Charles Francois Brisseau de Mirbel and illustrated and described by Pierre – Joseph Redoute and Ventenat respectively in ‘Jardin de la Malmaison’ published in 1803.
There are no roses recorded and according to Jennifer Potter, horticultural historian, visitors to the garden soon after her death such as the Englishman Seth William Stevenson noted a garden showing signs of decay with some roses growing with other flowers shaded by cypresses, willows and lilacs. A year later a group of Scottish gardeners visiting French gardens of interest do not refer to roses at all in the Malmaison garden only an estate slipping into neglect. These gardeners described the collections of roses on the drive from Paris and also in the Paris Luxembourg gardens. They also visited the nursery of M. Noisette, the famous rose grower but did not mention roses at Malmaison.
The many exotic trees and even a menagerie of animals including monkeys, a kangaroo, llama and black swans are documented but no roses so from where has Josephine’s reputation for being a rose lover and the idea of her huge collection of roses come? Her love of gathering plants from across the world even when her husband was leading the armies in Europe became well known. She was able to make special arrangements for plants to be sent to her. One such arrangement was with the London nursery of Lee and Kennedy who were able to send plants across the Channel during the battles with England. Lee and Kennedy were suppliers of roses as well as other plants and trees. It is known, as a result of Francois Joyaux, a French rose expert searching the National Archives that she imported some roses from them including R’ chinensis, R. multifloria ‘Cornea’, R. semperflorens (introduced into Britain as Slaters Crimson China) and the white moss rose R. centifolia ‘muscosa alba’ (known as Shailers White Moss). The new roses from China were being imported by the British rather than the French and British nurseries were known to be hybridising them.
Joyaux has also been able to list some roses that Josephine imported from unnamed suppliers including R. pendulina, R, virginiana, three moss roses and a Centifolia rose known as ‘Unique’. Other roses have been named by the French Rose expert M. Auguste de Pronville who saw a Damask rose growing in the garden which he identified as R. damascene carnea. He also noticed a variety of Scotch rose R. spinosissima and R. berberifolia. It is thought Josephine may also have bought from the Parisian rose growers such as Cels, Boursault and Vilmorin but there is only evidence of her purchases from the amateur rose grower Andre du Pont. Bills show that he supplied her with large numbers of roses during 1808 and 1809 but not their names.
Had Josephine been developing her rose collection when she died so tragically from Diptheria? The people of France were saddened by her death; she had acquired a reputation for being such a kind and gracious lady who had suffered intensely when Napoleon divorced her. Is it possible that as roses were becoming more popular at this time the two beauties became linked? A decade after her death Josephine was credited with igniting in the French a passion for growing roses. J P Vibert, well-known in the rose world spread the word that Josephine had amassed a rich and varied collection of plants but ‘roses were a special favourite of hers’. Had other rosarians ‘jumped on the bandwagon’? In another two decades her reputation as France’s premier rose enthusiast was secure and the idea that she was growing all the known roses at Malmaison was embedded in the literature and remains so today. France’s love of roses certainly grew after her death.
It is often thought that ‘Les Roses’ illustrated by Pierre – Joseph Redoute and Claude Antoine Theory is a record of the roses grown at Malmaison but this is known to be untrue. After their first publication under the patronage of Josephine they continued with the publication of ‘Les Liliacees’ between 1802 and 1816 which recorded many of her exotics not only those of the Lily family. The idea of ‘Les Roses’ came from Redoute himself who loved roses. It is believed he and Thory searched the rose gardens of Paris, including those of Ms Thouin, Le Lieur, Dupont, Cels, Vilmorin, Noisette, Descemet and Bigulin, for suitable subjects and Redoute also painted roses from his own rose garden. He already had a number of roses in his portfolio, a number from the garden of M Cels and two from Malmaison, R. berberifolia and R. gallica purpurea veluntina. As he was employed to paint flowers for various publications and give lessons in flower painting the majority of the portraits in ‘Les Roses’ were completed in his own time. His biography ‘The Man who Painted Roses’ by Antonia Ridge suggests that he told Josephine he wanted to paint all known roses. ‘Les Roses’ containing 169 plates was released in instalments and published in three volumes between 1817 and 1824, some time after the death of Josephine. It is not known how many roses were painted from the Malmaison garden.
Redoute Roses. (public domain)
When recreating her garden Jules Gravereaux, nearly 100 years later, gathered together all the roses existing at the time of her death believing that she had them in her collection. In 1911 when 197 roses were planted at Malmaison it was a wonderful tribute to Josephine and the rose. Whatever the truth about her rose garden it is undisputed that she did love plants one of which was the rose.