Jardin de la Malmaison: The French and Australian plants

In our research for the exhibition Entwined: Plants and People, curator Joan Bruce and I learned that the French, and in particular Napoleon Bonaparte, had a keen interest in Australia. Malmaison, the estate at which Josephine Bonaparte eventually resided, had a beautiful garden where Australian plants were cultivated and thrived. Josephine’s passion for plants was well-recognised, and ships bearing plants destined for Josephine’s garden were allowed through English blockades during the Napoleonic Wars.

One of the world’s greatest botanical artists, Pierre Redouté, was engaged to paint selected plants from the garden at Malmaison. Redouté is most well-known for Les Roses, but Jardin de la Malmaison has a distinctly Australian connection, as 46 of the 120 plates feature Australian plants, and the majority of these are endemic to Queensland. State Library of Queensland has recently acquired Jardin de la Malmaison for the Australian Library of Art collection.

Jardin de la Malmaison by E. P. Ventenat, 1803. Australian Library of Art, State Library of Queensland. 

One of the first Australian plants Josephine chose for Redouté to illustrate was a common Queensland flowering vine, the Hardenbergia violacea, otherwise known as false sarsaparilla. This vine can be seen in abundance in the Queensland bush. Other Queensland plants illustrated include the wonga wonga vine (Pandorea pandorana), prickly-leaved paperbark (Melaleuca stypheliodes), and the native rosella (Hibiscus heterophyllus).

Hardenbergia violacea. Jardin de la Malmaison by E. P. Ventenat, 1803. Australian Library of Art, State Library of Queensland.

In recognition of Josephine’s love of exotic plants, one of the plants collected on the Baudin voyage (1800) was named Josephinia imperatricis in her honour. Both Redouté and Parkinson illustrated this plant – Redouté for Jardin de la Malmaison, and Parkinson for the Banks’ Florilegium. Redoute’s version is undoubtedly superior, rendering the foliage in lush detail, while Parkinson’s rendition suffers due to the conditions in which he worked.

Sydney Parkinson, Josephinia imperatricis, Plate 245, Banks' Florilegium. Image courtesy Natural History Museum.

Page 282 Pierre Redouté Josephinia imperatricis, Jardin de la Malmaison by E. P. Ventenat, 1803. Australian Library of Art, State Library of Queensland.

Close up of Josephinia imperatricis, Jardin de la Malmaison by E. P. Ventenat, 1803. Australian Library of Art, State Library of Queensland.

Had Napoleon not been so hungry for military domination of Europe, it is likely his interest in Australia would have resulted in a French colony in Australia (see Freycinet’s map below, published in 1811). The resulting decades of war and political instability in Europe ensured Britain’s unrivalled colonisation of the entire Australian continent, and its position as the world’s superpower of the time. The early French contribution to the world’s understanding of Australian flora and fauna has been overlooked but is becoming increasingly recognised. The acquisition of Jardin de la Malmaison celebrates this contribution.

Carte générale de la Nouvelle-Hollande by Freycinet, 1811, from the Baudin voyage. A large part of South Australia and Victoria was ambitiously named Terre Napoleon though Tasmania was of greater interest to the French.

Carte generale de la colonie anglaise a la nouvelle-galles du sud (Nouvelle-Hollande) Louis Freycinet, 1835, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Collections:

  • Jardin de la Malmaison / par E. P. Ventenat, Paris, France : Imprimerie de Crapelet ; 1803. Australian Library of Art, State Library of Queensland. 

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