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Blog History Revisited

Combine a French Queen, a Belgian Artist & an American Cactus...what do you get?

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Dealing in Antique Prints & Maps for 30 years has been a powerful educator. Many are inspired by major historical events, while others are a puzzlement as time had buried their relevance. No matter. Sometimes the incidental footnotes is where the magic lives. This a surprising unexpected legacy discovered born of the French Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, & the power of art written for the Cactus & Succulent Society of South Australia.

Queen Marie Antoinette

The French Queen: Marie Antoinette

Watershed events in the late 1700s included the word “Revolution”, both American & French. School texts focus on the major political, military & social turmoil they caused. Certainly, both Revolutions succeeded. The American colonies cast off Britain's George III, with major financial assistance from French Monarch, Louis XVI. The consequence for the French was financial distress contributing to French Peasant storming the Bastille Prison in 1789. Enter Marie Antoinette, definitely in peril. Her perception of Art and Beauty became a strong ally when at 14 she was sent to Versailles. A suffocating "etiquette" had been designed, but failed, to curtail the indulgences of a bored nobility wandering the rich palace of Versailles. Ascending the throne she promptly laid claim to the Petit Trianon, a palace in the grounds of Versailles, for her exclusive use. Built by Louis XV, it was in the center of a botanical garden of 4000 species, including a university. The gardens were the envy of European elite. She was to create her own reality, including creating her own social ettiquette, within its gardens.


Pierre-Josph Redouté

The Belgian Artist: Pierre-Joseph Redouté

Meanwhile, a young botanical artist, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, was enjoying his “Paris Years” from 1788. Nearing the end of the French Age of Enlightenment (“Siècle des Lumières” 1715-1789), Paris was bathed in the wonders of Science & Culture. Before photography it was the role of an artist to record this Golden Age as returning voyages of exploration revealed exotic discoveries beyond their wildest dreams. New botanical specimens appealed to the French pursuit of beauty, knowledge and power .A new brand of artist was required to accurately record these discoveries. Redouté was such a person, winning him the title, “Draughtsman to the Cabinet of Marie Antoinette”. His exquisite artistry, inventiveness & craftsmanship made him the darling of Parisian Society.


The Queen's Selenicereus grandiflorus

The New World Cactus: Selenicereus grandiflorus

Native to Central America, a cactus, commonly referred to as “Queen of the Night”, “Night –Blooming Cereus”, Large-flowered Cactus, Sweet-scented Cactus or Vanilla Cactus. With such endearing names it was obviously well received. It was first propagated in the gardens of Hampton Court Palace In 1700. Carl Linnaeus, the Father of Taxonomy, classified this rare flowering cactus as Selenicereus grandiflorus, in 1753. He commented it had the largest flower of the cactus species.

Fast forward to 1789 with the French Royal Family awaiting its fate in “The Temple”. It seems they were distracted by Marie Antoinette’s two Selenicereus grandiforus, each presenting buds. If ever we wonder about the value of anything, here we have a queen that could have smuggled anything into her confinement, but she chose two prickly cacti. They are rare for they flower but once a year just before dawn and die. Louis LXI smuggled in the talented Redouté to paint this rare event, in great secrecy, no doubt bribing their peasant guards. To have a master artist on call at such a time is what made him a precious treasure. How else would such a-brief-moment in time be recorded?The deed done Redouté was then spirited away.

Auspiciously, within two weeks the French Republic was declared on 10th August 1792. Marie Antoinette was to meet with Madam Guillotine on 16th October 1793. Pierre-Joseph Redouté, in an era where political connections that assured advancement in one decade may guarantee beheading in the next, seamlessly went on to gain the favor of Empress Josephine. As the Queen wished him to paint the blooms of her Petit Trianon Palace, the Empress was eager to record the botanical treasures of Chateau Malmaisson. (This was to include the Australian Flora collected by the Nicolas Baudin Voyage 1800-1804 had met with Matthew Flinders in our “Encounter Bay”.) Redouté’s talents went on to secure him financial freedom, helping him to further his reputation.

Plantarum Succulentarum historia

…an Unexpected legacy - Plantarum succulentarum historia

Redouté had been botanically trained by amateur French botanist & publisher Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle. Known as L’Héritier, he had collected in excess of 8000 botanical species housed in his herbarium. Among them were succulents & cactus that proved difficult to preserve as they often flowered for brief periods, as experienced by Redouté with the Queen’s Selenicereus. A suggestion by L’Héritier of a comprehensive succulent catalogue appealed greatly to the talented Belgian artist. Redouté had been experimenting on an improved method of printing using colored inks, “a la poupée”. The resulting colors were rich & deep with a luminescence not possible using water-colour pigments. In 1800 L’Héritier was murdered. It fell to the next foremost botanist of his age, Augustin de Condolle, to collaborate with the awesomely talented Redouté on this project,the publication,  Plantarum succulentarum historia. Praised as the most complete record of succulents & cactus, issued in 28 parts between 1789—1805, to be continued with botanist J.B. Antoine Gillemin in 1829-1837. The folio contains 144 botanical illustrations.

Sir George Grey


Further curious South Australian footnote- Sir George Grey

Sir George Grey was a Governor of South Australia from 1841 to 1845. In 1861-68 he took up that role in New Zealand. Why is this being mentioned?Turns out a rare bound volume of Plantarum succlentarum historia was donated by Sir George Grey to the Auckland Free Public Library containing 144 succulent studies. If Grey’s colonial service had ended with us this most generous donation may well have been to the Public Library of South Australia. Of the many planned events on the Cactus & Succulent Society of South Australia (CSSSA) calendar, a member outing to North Terrace to view this glorious publication could have been one such excursion. This would have been a brilliant addition to the Succulenticon SA in 2020. A CSSSA member excursion to New Zealand may be on the itinerary for next year?

© Sandra J.I. Ker 2019

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