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Gather ye roses

Can there be many spare bedrooms in the country that do not have at least one, and probably four, prints of Redouté rose engravings hanging on the walls? I know ours does.

20 November 2010

12:00 AM

20 November 2010

12:00 AM

Can there be many spare bedrooms in the country that do not have at least one, and probably four, prints of Redouté rose engravings hanging on the walls? I know ours does.

Can there be many spare bedrooms in the country that do not have at least one, and probably four, prints of Redouté rose engravings hanging on the walls? I know ours does. People who do not think they know the name of a single botanical artist will have heard of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, the 19th-century Belgian-born artist who did so much to instil the French (and later the English) with an enduring love for the rose.

He did this by painting roses most faithfully and sensitively, in watercolour on vellum. These paintings were then engraved, using the copper-plate technique called ‘stipple engraving’, for inclusion in the three volumes of Les Roses, which were published between 1817 and 1824. This engraving technique beautifully emulated the complexity and tones of the original watercolours. (By the by, one of the finest of modern botanical artists, Bryan Poole, also employs this technique.)


Redouté achieved his early fame against a background of revolution in France. He was originally court painter to King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, yet managed to survive the Terror, emerging once more into the limelight as artist to the Empress Joséphine, for whom he painted a series called ‘Les Liliacées’ (1802–16). Her garden at Malmaison boasted 10,000 roses in 500 varieties, grown in clumps along a stream and in greenhouses.

She died in 1814, not long before Waterloo and Napoleon Bonaparte’s downfall, so never saw Redouté’s Les Roses published. He originally intended to paint 100 roses; in the end, so many interesting species were coming in from overseas that the final tally was 170. During these years, the Bourbon rose was introduced from the Île de Réunion, and became an instant success because of its capacity to flower more than once in the season, while ‘Hume’s Blush China’ (called Rosa indica ‘Fragrans’ by Redouté, see illustration, right) was brought back from China and became one parent of the Tea Roses, of which ‘Lady Hillingdon’ and ‘Mrs Herbert Stevens’ are the best known in this country. Claude-Antoine Thory, parliamentary lawyer-turned-botanist, wrote the erudite text for Les Roses. Only two roses were painted in the Malmaison garden; most came from other gardens around Paris, including Thory’s.

In 1828, having fallen on harder times, Redouté sold the paintings for 30,000 francs to King Charles X. The King gave them to his widowed daughter-in-law, the Duchesse de Berry, a mad-keen rosarian after whom a deep-pink, fragrant Gallica rose is named. She had married the heir to the French throne in 1816, but he was assassinated in 1820; life became more difficult still when Charles was deposed in 1830, and she was forced to flee with her children to England. She failed to sell the pictures at auction in London in 1831 or Paris in 1837.

Considering there was such rose mania in France in the 1830s, it is puzzling that the Duchesse de Berry’s watercolours did not find a buyer. In 1854, however, she managed to sell them for 35,000 francs to her half-sister, Princess Teresa Christina de Bourbon, Empress of Brazil. This probably saved them from the fire that completely destroyed the Tuileries Palace during the Paris Commune in 1871.

It is at this point that fact turns into credible supposition. Bryony Kirby, of the Old Master Drawings department at Sotheby’s, believes that these pictures were inherited first by the Empress of Brazil’s daughter and then by her grandson, Prince Pierre d’Alcantara d’Orléans-Bragance, who died in 1940. This is reinforced by the fact that six Redouté rose watercolours, which can be traced directly to the Prince d’Orléans, were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1987. Some time between 1950 and 1955, 52 watercolours, very likely from the same source, were sold to the 2nd Baron Hesketh by Philip and Lionel Robinson, the London booksellers. These go under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London on 7 December, as part of the library dispersal from Easton Neston, which estate was sold in 2005.

The paintings are of both species and early garden hybrids, some now lost, displayed singly, in a highly naturalistic way. They are botanically accurate, down to the last prickle on the stems. They include some particularly well-known images, such as ‘Rosa Mundi’ (R. gallica ‘Versicolor’) and Rosa bifera officinalis, the ‘Four Seasons Rose’. The estimates for individual paintings range from £25,000 to £70,000, for their size and allure are variable; estimates dwarfed by those for a well-preserved First Folio of Shakespeare (£1–1.5 million) and a first edition of Audubon’s The Birds of America (£4–6 million), which are being sold at the same time. I know nothing about this field of collecting, but it strikes me that the paintings’ evident quality, rarity, distinguished provenance, instant recognisability and crucial role in the rose’s fortunes must make them hardly less desirable.


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