Antoine Jacques part I by Barbara Tchertoff

On a warm summer’s day on 16 June 1830, the Board Room of the Horticultural Society in Paris was filled with roses and perennial plants. Antoine Jacques, the distinguished Head Gardener to the Duke of Orleans (who was to become King of France within the next few weeks), was displaying to his colleagues his latest treasures recently raised at the Chateau of Neuilly on the banks of the Seine near Paris.

Amongst them were several ramblers, hybrids of R. sempervirens which would become amongst the best-loved and most attractive garden roses now enjoyed throughout the world – despite flowering once for five weeks or so and having only medium sized flowers (as Jacques described them – which today means quite small).

How attractive and popular though these have proved to be with their ability to climb – covering an arch, a trellis, or a wall and their hundreds of clusters of smallish flowers nodding down. The overall effect can be stunning, and two of Jacques’ roses have received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

These sempervirens hybrids were named mainly for the French Royal Family – `Adélaide d’Orléans’ (the King’s much-loved, intelligent, and well-educated sister), `Princesse Louise’ (his eldest daughter, later to become Queen of Belgium), `Princesse Marie’, (his second daughter, a gifted sculptress).

`Félicité-Perpétue’ were two celebrated saints who have never lost their appeal since their atrocious martyrdom in 203 AD at Carthage. The Orleans family had a particular attachment to Carthage, and had endowed a chapel there. It has been suggested since 1900 that Jacques named this rose after his own twin daughters, but so far I have found no proof of twins, nor of children with these names. Anyway most French historians would find it out of keeping for the Head Gardener at that period to name a rose after his own family, considering that all the other ramblers were given Royal names.

Two other ramblers shown that day, also named after members of the Royal family, now seem to be lost: `Léopoldine d’Orléans’ and `Eugène d’Orléans’.

Antoine Jacques was born in 1782 at Chelles, about 55 miles (90 km). from Paris, the son of a gardener. Sons in those days frequently followed their fathers’ craft. At the age of 20 he did his regulation army service – and was lucky to survive.

On leaving the army, he served as an apprentice gardener at the Trianon in Versailles, where his intelligence and hard work brought him to the notice of Napoleon, who asked him what his ambition was in life. Jacques replied, ‘To become Head Gardener in one of your domains, Sire.’ A few years later he was Head Gardener at Le Raincy, near Chelles.

In 1818 Louis Philippe, then Duke of Orleans, asked him to take charge and restore the parks and gardens of Neuilly, and also of Monceau (on the outskirts of Paris), as well as keeping Le Raincy. Jacques, along with two other Head Gardeners under his orders at Monceau and Le Raincy, became responsible for these three large estates which totalled several thousand acres. His salary, `all found’, with a house, clothing, food, horses, etc. for his wife and family was about FFr8,000 a year, rising to over FFr14,000 by 1835.

Sadly, many of the fascinating archives of the Orleans family were destroyed in 1848 when Louis-Philippe was forced to abdicate and the châteaux of Neuilly and Villiers were destroyed. From what remains it is easy to see that the man who was called the ‘Citizen King’, was keenly interested in his parks and gardens.

Like master, like servant – Antoine Jacques was a gifted, indefatigable gardener, interested in all types of plants, both hothouse, temperate greenhouse, and outdoor. He was widely read in the writings of famous botanists and he published several catalogues of the plants in the Royal domains, including, when aged 65, a four volume Flora of Plants of Europe, in collaboration with the well known botanist Hérinq. A second edition soon followed. He also published monographs on conifers, and on the Chinese cabbage or Pe-tsai.

As can be imagined, in those days when everything was horse-drawn, large numbers of men, horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen were required when new parks or woods were laid out. Jacques too maintained detailed inventories of his stocks of tools – 20 wheel barrows, 67 heavy spades, 38 ladders, 113 rakes of various kinds and so on. Specialized equipment included demossers for scraping lichen off trees and barrels on wheels to transport water from wells, from springs or from the river.

The Orangerie housed 2,600 plants and shrubs, many in their fine traditional white boxes, and the hothouse 1,200 more. Gardeners kept a careful eye on their frames where seeds and cuttings were kept warm by tan from tanneries, or by decomposing manure. In Jacques’ day large supplies of natural manure were available from horses, fowls, and pigeons (all esteemed above other types). Towards the middle of the century, imported guano from Peru, although expensive, began to be highly prized. Human manure was reduced to powder and mainly used in agriculture not in gardens.

The greatest contrast with our lives today was the problem of garden pests. We can hardly imagine the vast flights of migratory birds such as lapwings, starlings or pigeons descending hungrily on cultivated fields – snares, nets, and glue were used to keep them in check. Young rose plants (many famous breeders had ten thousand or more) were decimated by the dreaded ‘ver blanc’, the cockchafer grub which lives for three years underground eating voraciously.

Salads were planted between the rows of seedling roses to tempt the grubs with an easy snack, and every morning men would pull up the salads and kill the grubs. Children earned pocket-money by filling kegs with the clumsy flying cockchafers and one reads of millions of the pests floating down the Seine.

The countryside teemed with wildlife which could also be counted on to destroy young plants. Roses were subject to rust and mildew, giving rise to numerous recipes on how to deal with these diseases. Luckily, Marsonia or black spot had not yet appeared in garden roses.

Jacques’ first catalogue in 1825 lists the hundreds of different trees for which he was responsible on the King’s three large estates plus 304 different roses, of which 23 are species roses, including of course R. sempervirens and its close relation, R. arvensis. He includes the Bourbon rose amongst the species roses and names it Rosa canina burboniana as the great botanist C.A. Thory does in Les Roses (illustrated by Redouté). Jacques was the first person in Europe to receive seeds of this rose in 1819 from Dr Bréon, the Botanical Director of the Island of Bourbon, a French possession in the Indian Ocean now called La Réunion.

As regards the pollination of Jacques’ own roses, he himself states in one of Loiseleur-Deslongchamps’ publications that this was ‘accidental’ – natural crosses due to insects or the wind. It may be noted that deliberate pollination of roses already existed in France and Germany towards the end of the 1820s and probably before. Well-known roses breeders such as J.P. Vibert wrote about it in 1830 and William Paul in England is quoted as saying in 1840 that he learnt his technique of ‘reasoned pollination’ from French breeders.

It is difficult to state positively whether Jacques (like many rose breeders today who refer to ‘unnamed seedlings’) preferred to keep his own counsel about his unusual ‘finds’, or whether his crosses were really accidental due to proximity. Rose breeders in those days raised thousands of plants so I feel we must take him at his word. We shall see in the second part of this article (Spring 2001) that Professor Jay and his team in Lyon have been able to discover which roses were the parents of Jacques’ hybrid sempervirens ramblers.

Of the roses in his catalogue, there is no mention of `Flore’ (also called `Flora’, 1829) nor `Reine des Belges’, (1832) which he named in honour of Princess Louise’s marriage to King Leopold I of Belgium, but it is possible that several unnamed descriptions apply to them. I have found no trace of as many as 40 sempervirens hybrids by Jacques, as stated in some books. Maybe the fact that he lists his sempervirens roses with a capital S, and a little further on, his semperflorens roses (now called chinensis) also with a capital S has led to confusion.

Life continued peacefully at Neuilly and Villiers. In 1829, Jacques a real innovator, tried out very low grafts on rootstocks, so that the young shoots could be layered the following summer. He was amazed and delighted to see vertical young shoots, 15-25cm (6-10 in) high, each with its corymb of flowers making a brilliant rose ‘lawn’, giving the effect of ground-cover roses about 150 years ahead of our current fashion. Roses displayed this way, he says, flower seven to ten days earlier than when grafted as standards.

In 1832, he offered his detailed monthly meteorological records to the Paris Horticultural Society for publication in their review. Temperature, the direction from where the wind was blowing, state of the sky, and barometer readings were all noted three times a day. They make vivid reading, since each day has detailed comments: December, ‘Covered fragile plants with straw mats. In this mild weather the mistle thrush is singing as if it were March.’

He continued these bulletins even after 1849 when he was forced to leave Neuilly following the flight of Louis-Philippe and part of the Royal family to England.

Jacques then moved near his nephew Victor Verdier, living in reduced circumstances at Ivry near Paris. He continued writing articles almost until his death at 84, in 1866. He never went out without his little box into which he invariably put plant specimens for later examination.

Only the year prior to his death, his nephew, Victor Verdier had been elected Vice-President of the Horticultural Society, and awarded its Cross of Honour and Merit. At the award ceremony the thought of his uncle Antoine Jacques, now 83, who for political reasons as the loyal servitor of a disgraced King had never been awarded any distinction, moved the nephew to tears.

Barbara Jellett Tchertoff has been carrying out research into the 19th century French rose breeders for several years and her work is published in both French and English journals. She lives in France and is a long standing member of both the HRG and the committee of the Friends of the Rosary at L’Haÿ-les-Roses.

This article appeared in the Autumn 2000 issue.

Follow this link to read Antoine Jacques – Head Gardener to Louis-Philippe part II.