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.
The name Malmaison first appears in the records as early as 1244 and derives from “Mala domus”, Latin literally for bad or evil house, probably because its connections with early Norman invaders. There was a manor house there from at least the 14thc but the house that Josephine bought dated from the 17thc although it had been extended in around 1780. They commissioned a pair of young architects, Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, to look at the house but didn’t like their idea for a completely new classical villa and insisted instead that they remodel the existing mansion.
Percier and Fontaine then designed every detail of the interior in what was to become known as the Directoire Style, as well as the stabling, guardhouses and other essential offices. They were also asked to lay out the gardens and grounds. The pair went on to work on many other projects for Napoleon, including designing the Arc du Carousel, and remodelling the Louvre and Tuileries palaces.
From the outset, however Josephine showed herself more keenly interested in improving the estate and its landscape. She had very decided views, favouring, despite the on-going wars, the fashionable English style. Unsurprisingly she soon fell out with Percier and Fontaine. Fontaine wrote in his journal in December 1800: ” Madame is distressed to see that we are making a number of straight alleys. She wants everything to be à l’anglaise. An avenue planted directly to go from one place to another seems to her a barbarism contravening the rules of gardening, and it is only because of the good opinion that she formed of our talents in the early days that we have won her agreement that the main drive and the avenue that leads to the stables should not be subjected to rules that demand winding paths.”
Eventually Fontaine and Percier were sidelined and Josephine turned instead to the elderly Jean-Marie Morel,[1728-1810] author of La Théorie des Jardins (1776) who like her preferred the “natural” landscape style of English gardening although he didn’t visit England until after he had written it. It was the most thorough treatise on the new theories of “natural” garden design which dominated French taste at the end of the 18th century, and the first on garden design in that style written by a professional. A second and much enlarged edition was published in 1802.
Morel’s practical experience is evident throughout, but he drew heavily on Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening which was the first contemporary study of what has come to be known as the English landscape garden. It foreshadows romanticism and in its day was enormously influential in both Britain and abroad.
Morel had also worked with the Marquis de Girardin at Ermenonville whose book on garden theory De la Composition des paysages [On the Composition of Landscapes] was published in 1777.
If you’re interested in knowing more about Whately and his Observations a new edition was published in 2016 with notes and commentary by Michael Symes.
Morel’s book was a sustained attack on the formal garden as the dull device of unimaginative architects and argued that gardening properly belonged in the hands of artists like himself whose architecture was made with hedges rather than bricks, and its furniture made of statues and urns on carpets of grass.
Josephine would have been able to keep up with any discussion of the latest gardening fashions. Her library contained a large number of botanical and horticultural books, including Linnaeus as well as others on design theory, forestry and what might loosely be called agricultural economy. All of these were useful for what was about to happen at Malmaison and allowed her to stand on an equal footing intellectually with the professionals she employed.
By the time Morel was appointed the grounds of Malmaison had been greatly extended by the acquisition of the neighbouring Bois-Preau estate at St Cucufa. It was there that Morel was commissioned to build a petit hameau or rural hamlet with a working farm. He claimed that “just like an artless and unaffected shepherdess, its simplicity will be its sole ornament.”
The buildings were the fashionable rustic Swiss style and to complete the faux Alpine picture Josephine imported a herd of cows from Switzerland, along with a Swiss herdsman and dairymaid who were to live in one of the houses. The whole concept is reminiscent as the mock village built in the park at Versailles for Marie-Antoinette and her friends to play at being peasant farmers. Such antics were typical aristocratic conceits with others at Chantilly, where the Prince de Condé built a mill, dairy and thatched cottages, and at Ermenonville where the Marquis de Girardin too had established a farm.
There was one major difference between Josephine’s hamlet and the others. Hers was more than just a playground. She may have been playing farms but she was also experimenting with agricultural improvement. For example, she built a sheepfold and bought at great expense a flock of Merino sheep, a highly prized Spanish breed whose export was heavily restricted. The flock was bred and then sent all over France, for hybridising and improving local stock, and particularly to improve the quality and quantity of wool, which, Josephine patriotically sent to make cloth for military uniforms.
There’s no doubt though that Morel’s greatest achievement at Malmaison must be the design of an enormous greenhouse. He oversaw the start of its construction but it wasn’t finally finished until 1805 after he had retired. It was such an amazing building and its contents so extraordinary that it’s actually going to get a post of its own in the next couple of weeks.
Morel was replaced by Louis-Martin Berthault who stayed working for Josephine for the remainder of her life. It was Berthault who oversaw the wholesale landscaping of the parkland in the most fanatically naturalistic anglophile style as Josephine spent money like water to create all the necessary features for a jardin anglaise.
Drawing on the example of Capability Brown, Berthault envisaged a complete transformation of the estate with the creation of a lake and an artificial river. Of course the new landscape had to look as if it was entirely natural so as the river was being dug out by hand and puddled with clay to stop it leaking, rocks were arranged, piled into cascades and flattened into rapids to give a natural tempo and appearance to the flow of water. The rocks were quarried near Fontainebleau and transported on barges down the Seine to Malmaison. The water was diverted from neighbouring streams and lakes as well as from springs in the hills nearby.
Like Morel,Much of Berthault’s design theory can be traced back to the ideas and moods outlined in Whately’s Observations On Modern Gardening, I suspect he must have been thinking of comments like these when he was planning the “river” at Malmaison.
“A deep stagnated pool, dank and dark with shades which it dimly reflects, befits the seat of melancholy” and “even a river, if it be sunk between two dismal banks, and dull both in motion and colour, is like a hollow eye which deadens the countenance.” On the other hand : A gently murmuring rill, clear and shallow, just gurgling, just dimpling, imposes silence, suits with solitude, and leads to meditation.” while “a brisker current, which wantons in little eddies over a bright sandy bottom, or babbles among pebbles, spreads cheerfulness all around.” Elsewhere perhaps “a greater rapidity, and more agitation, to a certain degree are animating.”
At the same time views were cleared down the valley of Seine to nearby Marly and the Chateau of St Germain. Marly was once a hunting lodge for Louis XIV, the grounds of which are still impressive, but probably more impressive still was the great engine that pumped water out of the river and up to the aqueduct that towered over the valley and dominated the skyline . This not only supplied the fountains at Marly itself but pipes that ran 7km [4.5 miles] to service those at Versailles as well.
Of course if you have a river and a lake you have to have boats.
Josephine had two main ones. The first was a gift from the City of Paris which was actually too big to manoeuvre comfortably on the river and which ended up being used on the lake near the rustic village.
The other, much smaller but was , according to William Ellis-Rees in Josephine in the Mountains, ” decorated with exquisite paintings and equipped with a waterproof cover, chequered cushions stuffed with horse-hair and finished with gold tassels, and an embroidered pennant”.
Aside from all this Berthault finished Morel’s hothouse and designed an adjoining gallery and entertaining space for Josephine’s collection of antiquities. He then added a whole series of garden features including a Temple of Love. But the temple is secondary to the plants. Although its difficult to see, the flowers in centre stage here are rhododendrons, which were acclimatised at Malmaison for the first time in France.
There was also a Monument to Melancholy, a grotto and pools with statues of Neptune and Hercules.
Fontaine, the architect she had dismissed years earlier, was furious about what he saw writing in his journal about the futility’ of the jardin anglais and ‘the stupidity’ of those who spend vast sums of money to transform their gardens into this style.
Malmaison he wrote”has been changed and entirely replanted: little temples, little bridges, tombs, rocks and all the ordinary adornment of jardins anglais are to be found there in profusion. So it is now generally recognised that one of the finest sites around Paris, one which could perhaps have been better suited than any other for the construction of a maison de plaisance along the lines of those that one admires in Italy, with all the luxury and charm of that country’s beautiful gardens, will have nothing but an old, renovated château, made up of riches piled up without order and surrounded by all the silliness of gardening à l’anglaise. ”
Fontaine’s annoyance must have been all the greater because he could see Josephine becoming a collector on a grand scale, bit a collector with eclectic tastes rather than those confined to one particular style or fashion. It was not just the antiquities that filled her gallery that fascinated her, or her books or paintings, her collection of shawls and other fashionable clothes and accessories, in fact all these would have taken second place to her passion for collecting natural history in all its forms.
Just as in England the Navy was commissioned to bring back exotic plants and wildlife from its voyages so Josephine managed to have the French Navy instructed to do the same.
Malmaison most famously became home to black swans from Australia, bought back by the expedition commanded by Nicolas Baudin. They lived on the river and lake and bred successfully with 7 in residence in 1814 the year Josephine died. They became her personal symbol and were used on furniture, chinaware and fabrics throughout the chateau. Black Swans have now been reintroduced to the park.
The Malmaison menagerie also housed ostriches, emus, kangaroos, orang-utans, zebras and numerous species of birds including parrots. When Malmaison was in danger of being overrun or the demands of the animals or birds became too great for her staff to cope, the creatures the ended up being transferred to the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes.
While she might have been passionate about landscaping, English style and exotic birds and animals Josephine’s greatest love [apart from Napoleon?] was plants and I’ll return to this in a week or two ‘s time when I write about the greenhouse.
Like so many other great gardens the Malmaison collection did not survive long after Josephine’s death at the chateau in 1814. The chateau and its 726 ha was inherited by her son Eugene de Beauharnais, and then after his death sold again in the first of many changes of ownership. In the late 19thc the estate began to be parcelled up for development and total dismemberment was only prevented when a philanthropist, Daniel Iffla, bought the mansion and the remaining 6 hectares, and gave it to the French government in 1903. It has been open as a museum ever since but sadly the gardens are less than a shadow of their former selves.