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Jardin de la Malmaison: Empress Josephine’s Garden

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

H. Walter Lack (ed.), Jardin de la Malmaison: Empress Josephine’s Garden (Munich: Prestel, 2004), 328 pp, 160 illus. in colour and black-and-white. £99.00 (hbk), ISBN 3- 7913-3185-X

“You can therefore have as much planting done as you like and may apportion this sum as you wish.”

A generous amount of money for the upkeep and embellishment of Josephine’s gardens of Malmaison was specified in the highly generous alimony arrangements by General Napoleon Bonaparte. Nevertheless, during most of her life, Josephine was in constant financial troubles due to her exquisite and exacting tastes in all areas of fashion, art, zoology and botany. Her most important and lasting legacy, however, is the creation of the gardens at Malmaison, west of Paris, and the commissioning of several books dealing with its botanical delights. In 1798, the wife of Bonaparte started to transform the landscape surrounding the chateau of Malmaison into one of the most beautiful and talked about gardens in Europe. Huge sums were spent on constantly expanding the estate and eventually the gardens and park covered an area of 726 hectares. The gardens were designed in the style of a ‘jardin paysager’, highly fashionable at the beginning of the nineteenth century in France, but rejected by many artists, who dreamt of a revival of the ‘grand goût’ replacing the dreaded ‘jardin sentimental’. The different garden areas housed a model farm, a menagerie with exotic animals, the famous hothouse by Jean-Thomas Thibaut and Barthelemy Vignon, and other garden buildings.

With Josephine’s premature death in 1814, at the age of fifty-one, the house and gardens were subsequently sold by the children of her first marriage in order to pay off the enormous debts she left behind. Today the park is reduced to a one-hundredth of its former size: most of the park buildings are destroyed, including parts of the hothouse. The chateau and a small park surrounding it are all that is left. The abundance of rare plants and their careful selection, due to Josephine’s connoisseurship, transformed Malmaison into a horticultural enclave in an otherwise French monoculture at the beginning of the nineteenth century. At its peak, Josephine’s garden included more than two hundred and fifty varieties of plants. She was constantly in touch with the great plant collectors and nurserymen of her time; and even corresponded and traded with the enemy. She corresponded with Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society in London, and with Sir James Edward Smith, the founder and President of the Linnean Society. She even shared the costs of a botanical collecting voyage to the Cape of Good Hope with the firm of Lee & Kennedy of Hammersmith.

In order to document her important plant collection, Josephine commissioned two books: Les Jardins de la Malmaison (1803–05) with text by E. P. Ventenat and one hundred and twenty plates executed by her court painter, Pierre-Joseph Redouté; and Aimé Bonpland’s Description des plants rares cultivées à Malmaison et à Navarre (1813), with fifty-two illustrations also by Redouté. The authors of Jardin de la Malmaison trace the history of the garden of Malmaison and place it in the context of its time. It is complimented by a reprint of all one hundred and twenty copper engravings of Les Jardins de la Malmaison. This book is well written and researched and, despite its wealth of lavish illustrations and handsome looks (at a price), it is not a coffee table book but is highly recommend reading for all designers and botanists alike.

Axel Griesinger

33:1 (Summer 2005)

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