The Empress’s Greenhouse

Last week’s post about Josephine and the landscape at Malmaison left out any discussion of the plants grown there, so today’s post is going to make up for that, because  it was plants that really captured her imagination. That meant, of course, they had to be housed properly.  Her dream came true in 1805 with the opening of what was to become the centrepiece of the plant collection.  But it was more than that.  The new building is thought to have been the largest area of glass yet erected, and it became the ancestor of the grand conservatories of 19thc Europe.

Josephine’s passion went way beyond new and tender  exotics that needed hot house conditions. The rest of the gardens were also filled with rarities from every corner of the globe. She became the French equivalent of Joseph Banks and Malmaison the French equivalent of Kew.


As we saw last week two young architects, Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine received the original commission to improve Malmaison and lay out the grounds. This included building a series of hothouses, but only one was finished before Josephine, who had very decided ideas of  what she wanted, managed to dismiss them  and find designers who were more to her liking. Eventually it fell to Jean-Marie Morel to  begin the construction of the grandest of grand greenhouses. He sited it on a rise overlooking the area where Berthelot, his successor, was soon to create the lake and artificial river.

Location of the greenhouse – marked C – overlooking the lake and the English river from Plan du Parc de la Malmaison, from Alexandre de Laborde, Description des nouveaux jardins de la France

The front section was wooden framed and about 50 metres [164 ft] long, rising to 6.5 m [21ft] in height.  It was divided into several sections on two levels. Each level ended with a  semi-circular extension at either end containing copies of classical statues. The central entrance in the middle of the main facade opened into  a large vestibule with a fountain and pool. The whole building was heated by 12 large coal fired stoves housed in the basement.

The back-wall was brick and in 1807 another building rose on the other side of it to serve as a grand reception space and a gallery  to house more of  Josephines’ collections of artworks and antiquities, including 175 Greek vases, seven white marble statues, eight granite columns and a large white marble basin, and the earliest known  plaster bas-reliefs  moulded from the Parthenon metopes.  It was decorated & furnished throughout by the best craftsmen of the day and was clearly as important an entertainment space as the main chateau itself.


The whole ensemble  was to be the highlight of any visit to the chateau  and Josephine herself took great pride in showing visitors around, as witnessed by images such as the one above.

Luckily Auguste Garnerey was commissioned to produce a series of images of the gardens of Malmaison, although sadly  there is only one glimpse of the interior, showing the lobby.   It is thought to depict Josephine, on the arm of a hussar, with a party of  guests. However we have a fairly detailed description by the Scottish botanist, Patrick Neill who visited in 1817, about 3 years after Josephine’s death. He  was part of a delegation from the Caledonian Horticultural Society and wrote an account in his Journal of a horticultural tour through some parts of Flanders, Holland, and the north of France, in the autumn of 1817. The plan and cross-section were not copied from architects plans but drawn on site by Neill’s companion, Mr Hay, in less than half an hour! [Neill also crops up in the post about George Don]



Neill calls Malmaison’s flower-garden one of the finest in Europe and describes briefly some of the trees and plants growing there, but it is the greenhouse which clearly, and unsurprisingly, grabbed his attention.

Hay’s plan shows that the greenhouse section was divided into two distinct zones. At the front, marked B, are “the stoves for tender exotics”. There were then steps up to a second section [unlettered on the detail but G on the full plan] which was “the conservatory” for plants which required protection but not excessive heat.  Between them, on the outside were the flights of steps that led up to the main entrance, which opened onto the lobby area [marked R] inside, captured by Garnerey, with its pool and statue.

If you want to see more of the detailed arrangements of the greenhouse follow the links and check out Neill’s key to the images.



While Mr Hay was drawing his plans Neill went on a tour, noting that it was a very rich collection but even this soon after Josephine’s death it was showing signs of neglect. Some of the best plants had been removed while others had “unavoidably perished” because “no adequate encouragement had been given for keeping up, far less increasing the collection.”

Nevertheless there were some spectacular sights. In the cooler conservatory he saw “many species of New Holland Acacias…grown very tall so as to reach the lofty glass roof.” From his description this must have included mimosa.

In another section that he describes as “a dry stove” with “many kinds of Aerides … exotic plants which are found parasitical upon trunks of trees.” Of course this included a large number of orchids, many in flower, and he describes the way they were tied onto “the stems of decayed trees”  set into the greenhouse borders. There were cactus too including the original plant of Cactus speciosus collected by Aime Bonpland, the plant hunter who became Josephine’s gardener.

In the tender stove Neill noted “Pothos macrophylla” which “made a very conspicuous appearance and a paw-paw tree.”

Another small greenhouse was given over to Cape plants particularly  ericas,  although he notes that the number was insignificant compared with what was being grown in Britain. Hardly surprising since the British had seized Cape Colony from the Dutch and the French had had no opportunity to send plant hunters there.

Interestingly although Neill is full of praise for the building he adds he would not recommend the design to friends at home largely because of the arrangement of the two zones which meant the plants in the cooler conservatory section only  got light through the glass roof. While this might be suitable near Paris says Neill it “was not calculated for the altitudes of Edinburgh.”

A bust of Josephine in La Petite malmaison

There are many commentators who argue that, at least in part, Josephine’s passion for botany, and in particular for tropical plants were a reflection of her upbringing in Martinique and perhaps an attempt to recreate the natural world that she experienced in her childhood.  But, of course, the construction of greenhouse was also a response to the arrival of so many new and exotic plants from the tropics, combined with the advances in the technical ability to keep them.

A bust of Napoleon from La Petite Malmaison

Malmaison was not a botanic garden. There were, as far as we know, no attempts to classify or lay out the plants in any formal scientific order.   That level of science was reserved for the  Jardin des Plantes in Paris.  Instead it was designed very much as  pleasure garden but having said that there is no doubt that Josephine was  intellectually curious, and sought advice from all the eminent scientists of the day, especially those at the Jardin des Plantes. Thus while it was a pleasure garden it was a pleasure garden full of rarities driven by her passion for plants.

Josephine was skilled getting her own way. As her husband’s armies conquered Europe so plants were commandeered from the gardens and conservatories of the defeated monarchies for both her and the Jardins des Plantes. She twisted the arms of ministers  to support naturalists, and plant hunters, and gained their support for using French diplomats and agents abroad and even the French navy to explore and collect natural history specimens.

Frontispice de l’atlas du voyage aux terres australes

Perhaps the best example of this is provided by the expeditions of Nicolas Baudin. He had commanded a French mission to the Caribbean between 1796-8 and bought back plants which were presented to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. In 1800 Baudin suggested to Napoleon, then the First Consul, that an expedition be sent to New Holland and Van Dieman’s Land [now Australia and Tasmania] to explore and map the coastline. This would help France rival Britain in the area, perhaps encourage French colonial ambitions and  allow the advance of French science.  The idea was strongly supported by the Jardins des Plantes and  24 scientists and artists joined the expeditions two ships.

Baudin died in 1803 on the return trip, and indeed only 6 of the scientists and artists survived the voyage but they bought back thousands of natural history specimens.  Although the Jardin des Plantes were expecting to receive them the Minister of the Interior intervened telling the professors there that Josephine was to be given priority and could claim whatever she chose from Baudin’s collection.  She repaid the favour by underwriting the costs of the subsequent book Voyage de Découverte aux Terres Australes by François Péron, which was  published  in 1807. Its  frontispiece [above] shows the  garden front of Malmaison with its lawn planted with mimosa, myrtles, and phormium, and of course there are the black swans  and kangaroos we saw last week.  It’s also worth noting  Frances  territorial ambitions because the map is inscribed Terre Napoleon.

But this was not all. Despite the almost permanent hostilities between France and Britain Josephine  corresponded, via Etienne-Pierre Ventenat, a leading botanist who worked  closely with her at Malmaison,  with Joseph Banks at Kew.  In April 1803 Ventenat wrote thanking Banks for all that he had done to supply plants for the garden at Malmaison, and hoping that he would continue to be of assistance. His letter was accompanied by the first volume of Ventenat’s book about the gardens, with others promised.    And what she couldn’t collect through diplomatic or state channels she was prepared to buy commercially.  Again warfare did not stop her and she famously bought   large quantities of plants from the Hammersmith nursery of Lee & Kennedy, which were shipped over from England to France .  

Her Anglophile interests were well recognised and satirised in cartoon form in Britain. The garden contains a sunflower with  the face of the Prince Regent, and elsewhere you’ll find images of other admirers including Sheridan, Wellington and the poet laureate Robert Southey. [Its worth clicking through to the image at the Wellcome Collection to have a closer look & even if we don’t get the political nuances seeing what  else it tells us about contemporary gardening.]

 Josephine even went plant hunting herself after her enforced divorce.  She toured the Swiss Alps finding  Linnaea borealis. The story of this has been  told by  William  Ellis-Rees in  Josephine in the Mountains.

The result of all this was that when in March 1804 a catalogue was made of the plants at Malmaison  there were 2,014 different sorts of plants, trees, and shrubs growing there. Over 200 of them  were the first introductions in France. Amongst these were  species of eucalyptus, hibiscus, phlox, catalpa, camellia, tree peonies, myrtles, geraniums, cacti, rhododendrons, dahlias, and magnolias.

As you can see from that list not all the introductions were tropical exotics that had to be grown in the greenhouse. Even for those the majority were grown in containers and kept outside in the summer but only overwintered inside.

What is interesting is, that like all real gardeners, Josephine was not selfish but wanted to set up Malmaison as an exemplar of what could be achieved.  In 1804 she wrote of her “inexpressible joy”  that collecting and sharing her enthusiasm bought her. ” To this end, I am cultivating an innumerable quantity of trees and shrubs from the Pacific [the Cape] and North America. I intend that, in ten years, each department will possess a collection of precious plants that were raised in my nurseries. ” [Cited by Susan Taylor-Leduc in Josephine at Malmaison]

In a way this was plants making a subtle political statement.  But she used plants to make those explicitly as well. For example  when Napoleon returned victorious from the battle of Marengo in July 1800, Joséphine welcomed him to Malmaison and promptly planted a cedar of  Lebanon, to commemorate the triumph.  Pierre Ventenat who wrote about her collection  was clear about this too: “You have gathered around you the rarest plants growing on French soil. Some indeed, which never before left the deserts of Arabia or the burning sands of Egypt, have been domesticated through your care. Now, regularly classified, they offer to us, as we inspect them in beautiful gardens of Malmaison, an impressive reminder of the conquests of your illustrious consort.”

Lapageria rosea from Ruiz & Pavón, Drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the Viceroyalty of Peru (1777-1816)

As might be expected this  patronage of botany and natural history led to plants being named in her honour.  The most spectacular is undoubtedly Lapageria, after Josephine’s family name, was named by the  the Spanish naturalists Hipolito Ruiz Lopez and José Antonio Pavon, in their Flora Peruviana and Chilensis, 1802.  It’s now the national flower of Chile.  Ventenat also named a plant from the Cape that he had first raised in the greenhouse in her honour as Josephinia imperatricis but as you might have noticed from the illustration a few paragraphs back  it turned out to be rather uninspiring.

However there was also  Amaryllis Joséphinae, now Brunsvigia Josephinae. There is a long and vivid account by Patrick Neill of the original bulb still flourishing in the greenhouse.

It had arrived  from the Cape in 1800 and by 1817 measured two and a half feet in circumference at the surface. “The head of decayed flowers was three and a half feet in diameter, and we could still count the remains of about 50 flowers.” The gardener even gave Neill seeds to take back to Scotland where he managed to raise some  bulbs.

As you might imagine Josephine was determined her collection would not be forgotten and as early as 1803 she began commissioning  a record of it. It was to become a spectacular series of books and paintings  I’ll look at these in a few weeks time as there isn’t space to do them justice today.

After the death of Josephine in 1814, her son  Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, tried to maintain the hothouse and its collection but on his death the greenhouse, but not the gallery behind, was demolished, before the Malmaison estate was sold  in 1828.  After that, as I explained last week, the estate changed hands several times before being finally  broken up in the late 19thc. At that point  the gallery and its surrounding grounds were sold off  and converted into a house known as La Petite Malmaison. In 1947 it was bought by Count Czarnecki, a Polish exile, whose son, Stefan still lives there.

Although he opens the house regularly as a concert & events venue, life on the edge of a  global city like Paris is not easy, and just as with many British historic sites  there are threats, not so much to the building but to its setting. As in Britain there is a system of listing and so the chateau itself is protected. Luckily the 3 hectares [about 7.5 acres] of grounds are also classified as “sensitive natural space”.  This hasn’t stopped  major road works taking  place over the last 15 years [think Painshill] or more recently the neighbouring commune wanting to build just 200m  outside the boundary  [think Kedleston] and so threaten  the view down the valley towards the aqueduct of Marly seen in many of the historic images .  

Stefan Czarnecki is keen to be positive and ensuring that Josephine’s botanical and architectural legacy lives on.  He was greatly helped when last year the house was the winner of the equivalent of a large heritage lottery grant  which will help pay for major repairs  He also has great ambitions to go green, run more plant-centred events and  maybe even one day rebuilding  Josephine’s greenhouse.

All I can say is good luck to him!

La Peite Malmaison

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