The Empress and the postman

The Empress and the postman

One of the relatively rare roses in my garden is a luscious purple crimson Gallica, ‘La Belle Sultane’, from 1795 (pictured), sometimes attributed to ‘Dupont’.


Though not talked about much today, André Dupont (1742-1817) is an important player in rose history. He is best known as the man who sold roses to the Empress Josephine.

Dupont’s early career was in service to the aristocracy. He was the chief steward at the Palais du Luxembourg, looking after the brother of King Louis XVI. There was an obvious drawback to this profession in the 18th century – your employers got their heads chopped off. But even before the French Revolution in 1789, serving the aristocracy came with major drawbacks. They may have been the richest people in France, but they could take a year to pay their staff.

Palais du Luxembourg, Paris

Dupont was a smart man. In 1780 he took on a side hustle, working with the post office. He soon won promotion to a senior position that came with a useful perk – free postage. You might think the man would not have the time for an allotment, but in 1785 he leased a plot of land close to the Palace to nurse a fledgling passion for gardening. During the revolution he kept his head down and, more usefully, on, and developed a special interest in roses.

In 1796 Dupont decided to build an école of roses – a collection of all the known specimens. He began making the most of that free postage, swapping roses with fellow collectors and nurserymen in the Netherlands, England and Italy. ‘La Belle Sultane’ may have originated from the Netherlands and been introduced and popularised by him at this period.

But he also began growing roses from seeds – breeding his own creations. These seeds were cross pollinated by the wind and insects.

Early rose breeding

Nehemiah Grew

Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) is known as the “Father of Plant Anatomy”

Sexual reproduction in plants had been recognised since the end of the 17th century. The English physician, Nehemiah Grew, first proposed a sexual theory of plant reproduction in 1684. Thomas Fairchild’s experiments crossing sweet William and carnation are known to have been made as early as 1717, and Philip Miller described insect pollination by observations on tulips before 1721[1]. But even as late as 1870, when the English rose breeder Henry Bennett began visiting rose breeders in France, he could see little evidence that they were doing anything other than relying on the wind and insects to cross pollinate[2].

A number of authors in the 20th century have claimed Dupont was an early exponent of art of selective pollination of roses by hand[3]. His recent biographer, Vincent Derkenne[4], hesitates to go so far.

He says: “At the time botanists were only interested in natural varieties – the species roses. For them flowers were an object of study and scientific classification. For Dupont they were also an object of aesthetic delight. He was a pioneer who applied a scientific approach to breeding roses intentionally for the pleasure of garden owners.

“We do not know if he hand-pollinated but what we can say with certainty is that Dupont sowed rose seeds and showed a particular interest in mutations and abnormalities, fixing some of these through grafting onto dog-rose roots and then disseminating them. He earned the respect of fellow naturalists from the Enlightenment period.”

Empress Josephine

By the end of the 18th century, André Dupont and his collection of roses has become well known. So, in 1799, when Napoleon and the Empress Josephine moved into the Luxembourg Palace for three months, she undoubtedly went to visit him. And so began a very special relationship.

Later that year, while her husband was attempting to conquer Egypt, she went house hunting and bought a chateau on the outskirts of Paris, called Malmaison. Josephine spent a fortune on the place (to Napoleon’s annoyance) and another doing it up and building her plant collection.

Portrait of Empress Josephine by François Gérard (1801)

Chateau de Malmaison (by Pedro Faber – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Napoleon’s foreign minister, Talleyrand, was once asked whether Josephine had intelligence. He is said to have replied: “No-one ever managed as brilliantly without it.” Cruel and unfair. Her passion for botany and the plant collection she built at Malmaison bears better witness to her intellect.

She had impressive glasshouses at Malmaison and took pleasure in taking her poor ladies in waiting and courtiers around them, introducing them – or reintroducing them ad infinitum – to the rarities it held.

“When the weather was fine, the green-houses were inspected; the same walk was taken every day; on the way to that spot the same subjects were talked over; the conversation generally turned on botany… her wonderful memory, which enabled her to name every plant; in short, the same phrases were generally repeated over and over again, and other circumstances were, at the same time, well calculated to render those promenades exceedingly tedious and fatiguing.”  – Georgette Ducrest, Memoirs of the Empress Josephine 1829

Josephine’s roses

Josephine’s interest in plants was wide-ranging, but she is best known for her roses. Born Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, until her marriage to Napoleon she was generally known as “Rose”.  Dupont became an important supplier for her. Vincent estimates that she bought as many as 1500 from him for the Malmaison estate (though accounts show that – guess what? – she would take at least a year to pay). She may have not had the most comprehensive rose collection in France, but it was still significant[5].

Dupont was not her only supplier. Famously, during the Napoleonic wars the Royal Navy blockaded French ports, but ships were allowed through to deliver rose bushes and other plants from the Lee & Kennedy nursery in London to the Empress for Malmaison. Suffice to say she failed to pay all her bills.

In 1803 Josephine engaged a talented Belgian artist to come and paint her plants. His name was Pierre Joseph Redouté. He started work painting the roses at Malmaison in 1813. The following year Josephine died of pneumonia. Redouté carried on painting and produced three volumes of hand-coloured engravings between 1817 and 1824 – more than 250 roses, including Rosa Gallica Pontiana, more widely known as ‘Manteau Pourpre’. 

Rosa x dupontii Déségl. Photo copyright of Vincent Derkenne

Hard times

The year Josephine died was a difficult one for Dupont in other ways. Aged 72, he was forced to retire from the post office. He exchanged one set of his école of 537 different roses for a small state pension. Each rose was on its own roots and doubled with a specimen grafted on to dog-rose roots. Planted at the Palais du Luxembourg, under the care of its director Julien-Alexandre Hardy (husband of Mme Hardy, after whom the famous rose is named), it became the foundation of what was then Europe’s largest collection of roses. It is believed that a second école was later sold to Louis Claude Noisette for his own extensive collection of roses.

Rosa Gallica Pontiana, by Redouté in Les Roses – photo by Vincent Derkenne © Coriallo-Ville de Cherbourg-en-Cotentin. Today the rose is known as ‘Manteau Pourpre’. Photo by Vincent Derkenne.

Three years later Dupont died. Vincent sums up his life. He says: “André Dupont was the great precursor to the important period of rose breeding that followed in France. He was an experimental gardener and a pioneer; he collected and distributed roses, he propagated them by seed, and helped popularise roses as ornamental garden plants, inspiring and helping fellow breeders and enthusiasts across Europe.”

In keeping with his scientific approach to studying the genus Rosa, Dupont kept a rose herbarium – a collection of preserved plant specimens, pressed, dried and mounted. Little is published about this herbarium, so it surprised Vincent when, in the spring of 2013, while studying the National Archives, he found the minutes of a meeting of the Professors’ Assembly of the National Museum of Natural History.

Dated February 16, 1814, they note: “M. Dupont, owner of a collection of roses, offers a herbarium of rose varieties and a plant of the Rosa monophyla[6]. M. Desfontaines is invited to thank M. Dupont on behalf of the administration.”

Top left: Page from A.L. de Jussieu ‘s Herbal in Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle – the flower comes from Dupont’s garden. Right: Rosa bifera variegata & Rosa monophila in Dupont’s Herbal. All photos by Vincent Derkenne.

The Dupont herbarium

Vincent was astonished. He says: “I felt certain that these plates of dry specimens were still present somewhere within these venerable buildings. Nothing is lost in a museum. All we had to do was look for them. Fortunately, at the time there was a campaign to digitise the collections of the National Herbarium, which made it possible to bring together folders that were sometimes scattered in cupboards within different departments. It took some time but eventually the staff became enthused by the thought of the vieil herbier de roses du Muséum.”

On April 9, 2015, Derkenne was invited to the museum. He says: “Staff brought out three boxes of herbarium plates, all dedicated to roses, dated from the beginning of the 19th century. We looked at the plates, especially some with long handwritten notes. I could not hold back my emotion. It was the handwriting of our old friend André Dupont. There was no doubt about it. It was his collection.”

Vincent Derkenne’s book, “André Dupont 1742-1817 – Un palais des Roses” is available through  ISBN: 978-2-322-23774-6 and also an abridged paperback summary in English.

[1] Discovery of Sexuality in Plants. Nature 131, 392 (1933).

[2] The makers of heavenly roses, by Jack Harkness p.23 1985

[3] The first of these was Mrs Frederick Love Keays in Old Roses, published 1935.

[4] Interview with Vincent Derkenne, author of “André Dupont 1742-1817 – Un palais des Roses”

[5] The respected French scholar François Joyaux says that all her roses were grown in pots. Some were displayed around the grounds when in bloom, but there was never a rose garden.

[6] Rosa monophyla is a synonym of Rosa persica

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden history blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.