The Botanical Garden Pamplemousses, Mauritius, is a tropical paradise in miniature. I’d like to show you some of the beautiful plants I painted there, how I went about my sketches, and let you in on the lives of some of the people who created it.
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The lilies were so bright, they begged to be painted in something more vivid than my usual watercolours (although I think I’d know how to approach it using regular watercolour now). So I used my Dr. Ph Martin’s Radiant Watercolours, which I had decanted into tiny glass bottles for the trip.
BeginningsMauritius was claimed by France in 1715. The Dutch had abandoned the island a few years before, sick of the cyclones, plagues, rats, mosquitoes and constant famine. The far-sighted Mahé de Labourdonnais took over as governor in 1727 and purchased the Creole mansion of Mon Plaisir, on the grounds of what would become the Botanic Gardens at Pamplemousses. The gardens started in a humble way in 1735, as a means to provide food for the house and the nearby town of Port Louis. Legend has it that Labourdonnais existed on just a few hours’ sleep a night, getting up at well before dawn to organise building projects all over the island, carving a civilisation out of what was essentially a tropical jungle. Before Labourdonnais, Mauritius was a hard place to live, and it remained so for many years afterwards…I recommend “Creating the Creole Island” by Megan Vaughan for a vivid, warts-and-all account of life for slaves and colonists in Mauritius in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But be warned – it will make you very cross. Far from being anti-slavery, Labourdonnais brought thousands of them into Mauritius. He introduced cassava (manioc) into Mauritius as a means to feed the slaves, and grew them on the grounds around Mon Plaisir.
Labourdonnais had his ups and downs: he lost his wife and two daughters to illness on the island, and although he married again and continued in his productive manner in Mauritius, he had lots of enemies and ended up in prison back in France, where his health was ruined. He was only in his fifties when he died. From what I can gather, people were always having spats and rivalries at the time, and you could fall out of favour very fast. Punishment was rarely just losing your job…you were far more likely to be disgraced or imprisoned. If Labourdonnais was an unstoppable whirlwind, one of his successors, Pierre Poivre, was a fearless adventurer and keen botanist. Even though he lost his right arm to cannon fire during a sea battle as a young man, it wasn’t enough to thwart him from his obsessive desire to break the monopoly that the Dutch had over the spice trade, which was very lucrative at the time, to put it mildly. The Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) was the source of the spice trade which the Dutch had all to themselves in the eighteenth century: anyone caught smuggling plants was executed, and the same fate awaited anyone trying to make a sneaky map of the islands. Nonetheless, Poivre made many trips to the Dutch East Indies to smuggle young plants out. He felt that if Mauritius could grow and export cloves and nutmeg, it could have something to export, and the revenue attained could alleviate the constant problems of food shortages. On one of his many trips to the Dutch East Indies – hazardous in themselves – he sewed some baby plants into the lining of his coat (a man with one arm – it makes one feel a bit inadequate). A saboteur killed the young plants on the journey home by pouring boiling water on them. Poivre didn’t give up, though, and eventually cultivated the first clove and nutmeg plants in Mauritius and the neighbouring island of Réunion.
Soon he began the transformation of the gardens around Mon Plaisir into a nursery, growing plants of all kinds. In this way the grounds became a proper botanic garden in 1768. There’s a very nice statue of Pierre Poivre in the gardens today. He looks very smiley and not in the least confrontational. But hot-headed he was, it seems. There’s a famous book set in Mauritius by a man called Bernardin de St. Pierre, about two young lovers living an idyllic, innocent life in paradise. It’s called Paul et Virginie. The girl is sent to France but returns to Mauritius to be with the boy she loves, but is drowned in a shipwreck. Bernardin was a hopeless romantic (and tended to fall out with people). He and Poivre became good friends, but it all went wrong when Bernardin became a bit too close to Madame Poivre – both she and and Bernardin were much younger than her husband. Bernardin was no longer welcome at Mon Plaisir and in Madame Poivre’s letters to him she’s forever telling him to stop hassling her. The British took Mauritius in 1810. They had had enough of the constant attacks on their fleets by corsairs (legalised pirates) based in Mauritius, as they made their way towards India and the East. After the British takeover, the Botanic Gardens became neglected. They were restored in 1849 by James Duncan and replanted with many new species. His planting included lots of species of palm, including the famous Royal palm; there is an avenue near the entrance which is lined on either side with this majestic, towering palm, and it’s truly a sight to behold. In the years since then the gardens have grown and developed to the mature Eden we see now.
The Botanic Gardens todayToday the Botanic Gardens is a dreamland of breathtaking palms and exotic vegetation, bursting out of the grounds in sultry heat. It’s a wonderful place to spend a day, and for an artist it is heaven. Before I started sketching there, I visited with my family on a very hot summer’s day. There is always a place to find shade. There are just so many trees that will make you gasp, like the enormous baobab and countless others. Just too beautiful. It’s not expensive to get in, and for Mauritians it’s free on Sundays and festive days. I fully intend to avail of that when I become a Mauritian citizen: my husband is Mauritian through his father, and all I have to do is spend a few consecutive years there and voila! – free entry to the gardens on Sundays and festive days. (I’m being flippant: I would be honoured to become a Mauritian citizen, as I adore the country.) The Gardens are perfectly safe for a woman painting on her own, but then I never had any trouble out and about sketching in Mauritius, in town or country. Well, almost none: over the course of four months of painting nearly every day, I only met one slightly unsavoury fellow on a beach somewhere, and he was more amusing than dangerous. Anyone remember Billy Bunter? Add a pink bandana and a white Honda with Pimp My Ride written on it and you’re there. He revved his car a few times (I was very impressed) but then the engine cut out, so that was a fail! But I do understand that many people would be nervous if they’re not used to painting in public, especially in a country that isn’t their own. In the Botanic Gardens I was perfectly safe: the staff and guides always made me feel very welcome. One afternoon, as our excursion to the gardens was coming to an end, my two younger children started climbing a large tree near the exit. There was a guard strolling nearby, and I told him I’d get them off the tree. “Leave them,” he said. “Let them enjoy themselves.” Then he showed me a tree beside the lake from which hung intricately-woven nests, made by the little yellow weaver birds that you see everywhere in Mauritius. You’ll often see a tree with no leaves, but with nests at the end of the branches: that’s because the little birds strip all the leaves to make their nests. Apparently the gentleman bird has to make about five or six nests before the lady bird will find one acceptable and will agree to start a family. “Look at the inside of the nests,” said the guard. “You can see an inner chamber where the eggs are kept safe. It’s lovely here at sunset, when the birds come home to roost. You should try to be here just before dusk some evening.” The gardens are full of guides showing tourists around the grounds. When you’re quietly painting somewhere in the gardens, you can hear their voices waxing and waning in many languages. I suppose I got a few free tours, just because I was painting a particular tree that a guide was describing.
Talipot Palms Take these talipot palms, for example. The ones I drew were very young, and I drew them because of the way the light filtered through the leaves and the shadows that were cast on the ground. The adult trees were magnificent, towering thirty metres overhead, with trunks swathed in huge glossy leaves of some kind of ivy. “The talipot palm that you see above you,” said the guide, “flowers just once every sixty years, and then dies. Look up: you are fortunate enough to see one in flower at the moment.” There in the crown of the tree you could just make out white flowers. Manila Hemp Then there was the manila hemp palms, which grow in the big lake in the middle of the gardens. They have big glossy leaves and very fibrous stems. Manila paper and envelopes were originally made from these plants, and it’s still used for specialty papers and hats.
I spent about four hours painting this. I’m quicker now, but I have to say I really enjoyed that long afternoon staring at these leaves. Just to my right there was a little pavilion with a thatched roof. A young Hindu couple, in their early twenties, took up residence in there. They seemed besotted with one another. After a few hours of staring into each others’ eyes, followed by some very chaste lolling about in each others’ arms, they must have become a bit bored, or perhaps a little frisky, and so the young man pretended to throw his girlfriend into the lake, to the sound of much shrieking. They were oblivious to me. The Botanic Gardens always has quietly intense young couples dotted around it, sitting together in the shade of palm trees and pavilions – it’s a good place to get a bit of privacy. Victoria Amazonica I really wanted to paint the famous lily pond in the gardens, and so I spent a few hours one hot afternoon painting it. If you look at the far end of the pond, you’ll see a young man peering into the water. He was on his own and I thought he might be an amateur botanist. He watched me paint when he got to my side of the pond, and stood there in silence for a few minutes. “Do you notice anything about the painting?” I said. He was a bit flustered and said he didn’t. “You’re in it,” I said. He blushed but seemed pleased.
I went back and gave it another bash, and that’s the one that you see at the top of the page. By that time I had spent a year drawing nearly every day, so my drawing technique had changed. My line was always confident, but discovering different pens made it all the more so. I’d also discovered other types of paint, such as the Dr. Martin’s Radiant Watercolours that I used to paint this. Palm (don’t know the name) I loved the little palm trees that you see all over the garden. I thought the leaves of this one were very beautiful, and it was heaven to draw them. Their strong shapes practically begged to be drawn. A group of French tourists were being told about the Spice Corner right beside the spot where I was painting, where there are specimens of clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper. A lady started watching over my shoulder. “I have always hated watercolours,” she said. “But I love this.” Hmmm…flattering? Definitely!
Eucalyptus One of the days I went – I think it was the day I painted the manila hemp – I was a bit early for the light to be right. So I warmed up my pencil with this sketch of a eucalyptus tree with its giant, hefty roots. I loved the play of sunlight over the bark and I practically gouged the line in a 5B pencil.
As far as I’m concerned, the Botanic Gardens at Pamplemousses is one of the top places you can visit in the whole of Mauritius. It’s a place full of beauty, history and serenity – and if you’re lucky enough to go there, don’t forget your paintbrush. By Róisín Curé
Some limited edition (hologrammed) giclée prints on heavy watercolour paper are available in our shop, including :-