The story of how a 32 year widow from Martinique escaped the guillotine and then met and fell in love with the a young Corsican general during the French Revolution is the stuff of romantic novels. It’s one of the great celebrity love stories of history. Most gardeners and art-lovers will also know of Josephine’s passion for roses and the famous book about them with its illustrations by Redouté. But there’s a lot more to Josephine’s interest in horticulture and natural history than that.
Marie-Joseph-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie married Napoleon in 1796, and they bought Malmaison with 60ha of land in 1799. She rose to power alongside him and Malmaison effectively served as the seat of government between 1800 and 1802.
Josephine was crowned Empress in 1804, and although Napoleon divorced her 5 years later for dynastic reasons [there was no the heir – and Napoleon wrote of his new wife that he had married a womb”] she maintained her rank and her title of Empress, and she kept the Malmaison estate together with all of its collections. There she devoted herself to natural history, particularly botany, becoming in some ways France’s answer to Joseph Banks and turning Malmaison into a miniature version of Kew.
It was just about the last thing I expected on a short visit to Montreal last October: a Chinese Garden. In Europe we’ve been used to Chinoiserie for over 300 years but while some examples are genuine imitations [if that makes sense] most are really just, at best, bastardised forms of Chinese architecture and design, whilst at worst they are comical misuses of the form and details…. and none of them are gardens.
I should say at the outset too that I knew nothing about Chinese gardens, and even now I still only know next to nothing. After all, while we have plenty of Japanese gardens in Britain I can’t think of a single Chinese one.
When I was writing this, obviously without access to the British Library, I turned to Maggie Keswick’s The Chinese Garden which I bought shortly after it came out in 1978 [how to make yourself feel old!] She grew up in China and was a regular visitor as an adult, visiting many historic gardens there, and did huge amounts of research. The book is full of insights into what for most westerners is an unknown world.
Let me quote from the preface: “Whoever heard anything special about Chinese gardens? Even in the East they are something of a lost art form; in the West the words seldom conjure up any image at all – or if they do it is likely to be one of a Japanese garden with its exquisite arrangements of moss and stone, its manicured pines and dry streams, and above all, its sense of being so perfect in itself … Chinese gardens are not like this.” How true that is, so be prepared for a surprise or two…
The very word Sissinghurst conjures up the glories of the English garden. It must be the most photographed and written about garden in the country and it’s certainly the most popular of the National Trust’s gardens. In fact it’s been talked about almost since the day Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville West bought the remains of the Tudor castle and began their transformation. As John Sales, the former head of Gardens for the National Trust noted “no garden had greater influence in the second half of the twentieth century.”
Visitors, called “shillingses” by Vita, after the price of admission, have poured in from those earliest days and have adored it. Every known adjective extolling beauty of design, form and colour has been used to describe it. It must be, to coin a phrase, the quintessential example of all that is best about English planting and design. As a consequence I’ve avoided writing about it, as I do most famous sites, since I never think I’ll have anything insightful or interesting to add to the countless other rehashes of its history or descriptions of its planting. But to tell the truth – and prepare to be shocked – its also because I don’t think I ever liked it that much.
I wrote a few months about Dickens and his garden at Gad’s Hill and also about the way he uses gardens in his novels. Today I was just going to look at one rather quirky Dickensian character and his rather quirky garden, but as I started writing I realised Dickens had got it right once again. This character, odd though he appears at first, is not actually that strange, and instead of being entirely a creation of Dickens fertile imagination, I think he is actually a reflection of a large number of us gardeners… definitely including me.
So this post is going to be a bit self-indulgent – with these 2 photos and others through the text as proof of that – for reasons which will be apparent by the end.
My favourite garden in London is very sadly currently out of bounds to the public because of covid19, although I have just taken advantage of the slight relaxation of the lockdown to walk around the outside. But if I can’t get inside I can at least, as a poor substitute, write about it. It’s an Edwardian extravagance of the first order: a wonderful mix of the impressively grand and the elegantly romantic, and shows just what could be done with a bit of vision and a lot of money! Its also a case study in how quickly even a well-built and well-maintained garden can fall into disrepair and be threatened with destruction, but fortunately, also how with a bit more vision and a lot of money it can once again surprise and delight the visitor.