Gallery Assistant Tamsin writes about the connections between a beautifully illustrated book of roses, the fictional world of Bridgerton and the passion for botany shared by real life queens and empresses. 

If you are a Bridgerton fan, which family has your favourite look? The bright and showy Featheringtons or subtle and classy Bridgertons? Either way you cannot fail to notice the abundance of flowers used to create the distinctive style of the show. From the wisteria clad Bridgerton mansion to the dresses and hairstyles, as well as the lavish gardens and glorious weddings, Regency-era London is shown in full bloom. 

At the centre of Bridgerton intrigue and gossip is Queen Charlotte, who was in real life a patron of the arts and an amateur botanist, with a keen interest in the work of Kew Gardens, as well as cataloguing and drawing plants herself. She kept up a long-term correspondence with Marie Antoinette, with whom she shared her interest in botany.  Marie Antoinette first became patron of, then gave the position of Draughtsman and Painter to the Queen’s Cabinet to, botanical illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté. 

Illustration of pink flowers
Pierre-Joseph Redouté, ‘Les Roses’, 1817-1824. Image credit: Leeds University Library.

Born in Belgium, Redouté (1759-1840) moved to Paris and worked as a theatre scenery painter before discovering his passion and skill for flower illustration. Trained by some of the leading botanists of the day, he worked from live plants, giving his paintings beautiful detail and freshness combined with scientific accuracy. He became known as ‘The Raphael of Flowers’ whose glorious, detailed watercolour illustrations of plants and flowers were at the heart of the era’s fascination with botany. He travelled to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1787 to study the plants there, many brought from far and wide by the scientific explorers of the day. Having survived the upheavals of the French Revolution, in 1798 he went to work for the Empress Joséphine who later became his patron.   

Open book, called Les Roses, with illustration of yellow flowers on right page
Pierre-Joseph Redouté, ‘Les Roses’, 1817-1824. On display in Treasures of the Brotherton. Image credit: Leeds University Library.

Joséphine collected and established hundreds of varieties of plants and flowers in her gardens at the Château de Malmaison. With a particular interest in roses – she wanted to collect all known species – Joséphine had roses gathered and sent to Malmaison from scientific voyages as well as via Napoleon’s fleet. Redouté recorded around 200 species of roses in his three volume ‘Les Roses’ published 1817-1824. With text by Claude Antoine Thory, the books were created using stipple-engraved plates, which allowed for delicate gradations of colour and for the inclusion of tiny details – they were then hand finished in watercolour to enable the finished plates to resemble Redouté’s original watercolours as closely as possible. The backgrounds were left undecorated to show the flowers in all their glory without distractions.   

Illustration of red flower
Pierre-Joseph Redouté, ‘Les Roses’, 1817-1824. Image credit: Leeds University Library.

Redouté had five queens and empresses as pupils or patrons, and published thousands of plates over the course of his career. His publication for Joséphine, ‘Les Liliacées’ (1802-1816) contained an image of a bird-of-paradise flower named for Queen Charlotte by Sir Joseph Banks, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Lady Whistledown would be green with envy!