Friday, August 16, 2019

Joseph Paxton, Creator of the Crystal Palace

By Judith Taylor

I have paid homage to two great Victorian men so far in this column but Joseph Paxton, 1803 – 1865, may be the granddaddy of them all. He rose from being the son of a middling farmer who died when the boy was only seven years old to a knight of the realm and confidant of one of the wealthiest and most powerful noblemen in England at a time when such things counted, the Duke of Devonshire.

Joseph Paxton

A slight digression on the topic of the duke, George Spencer Cavendish, sixth duke of Devonshire, 1790 – 1858, is in order here. It was the duke who ignited the latent forces in Paxton and fostered his development all his life. Throughout her married life, Sarah Paxton knew that whatever the duke wanted would always take precedence. She was a sensible woman and understood the situation. The duke’s mother was the infamous Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire. In spite of his great wealth and position he was a shy man, hampered socially by being deaf. That could be the reason he never married. He suffered from the occupational disease of dukes, boredom.

That ended when an Oncidium orchid pierced his soul and he was smitten for life. The careful reader will remember that this was what happened to Dean Hole, only in his case it was a rose. The duke was always a very dutiful steward of his great estates but he began to improve his gardens and devoted his life to creating lasting beauty.

His home in London lay next to the London Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick. He enjoyed wandering around that garden and asked the superintendent in 1826 if he could recommend a suitable young man to take charge of his grounds at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. The estate is near the town of Chesterfield in the foothills of the Peak Country. The superintendent recommended Joseph Paxton, still young and untried but clearly ready to take on larger responsibilities.

Chatsworth, Derbyshire

Poor children were not always able to spend much time at school in country villages but perhaps because Joseph was the youngest child he stayed in school long enough to learn to read and write proficiently. This gave him an edge when he applied to become a gardener at the society’s premises. There is a record of his entry in their literacy test. In it he also wrote that he was three years older than he actually was. By the time the duke took him on he was still only twenty.

Paxton left an accurate account of his first day at Chatsworth which is quoted very frequently but which is nonetheless worth repeating here for its great charm.

“I left London by the Comet Coach for Chesterfield and arrived at Chatsworth at half past four o’clock in the morning of the ninth of May, 1826. As no person was to be seen at that early hour, I got over the greenhouse gate by the old covered way, explored the pleasure grounds and looked round the outside of the house. I then went down to the kitchen gardens, scaled the outside wall and saw the whole place, set the men to work there at six o’clock; then returned to Chatsworth and got Thomas Weldon to play me the water works, and afterwards went to breakfast with poor dear Mrs Gregory and her niece. The latter fell in love with me and I with her and thus completed my first morning’s work at Chatsworth before nine o’clock”.

One can only imagine the expression on the gardeners’ faces when their new boss appeared over a wall and gave them their marching orders. He married Sarah Bown the following year. She was a bit older than he was and not particularly pretty but she was a solidly good person with the added advantage of a substantial legacy. In the parlance of the time according to Trollope’s clerical hierarchy, she was “WOM” (wife own money).

The duke worked ceaselessly to improve his gardens with Paxton. As a torrent of rare and exotic new plants were flooding into Britain from the rest of the world the duke bought everything he could lay his hands on to satisfy this new lust. He even joined the movement for private individuals to send out their own collectors but in his case that ended in tragedy and he never did it again. Two of his nice young gardeners went to the Pacific Northwest region of America and were drowned in the Columbia River.

Many of the imported plants were either tropical or sub-tropical and that led to the need for glasshouses. Paxton had already shown his flair for architecture with other structures at Chatsworth. This was a fortuitous time. The ridiculous tax on glass was repealed in 1845. James Hartley patented his method for making large flat panes of glass which were vastly superior to any previous glass in 1847. Paxton had warmed up by building a wondrous huge glasshouse at Chatsworth, “The Great Stove”, a few years earlier. Dozens of people visited it to marvel at its beautiful structure.

The Conservatory/Glasshouse at Chatsworth

There was one influential person who did not share this opinion; our friend John Claudius Loudon. He spent a lot of time traveling throughout the country visiting gardens and writing about them. These systematic reviews led to improvements in garden design and function. It is possible he felt threatened by the rapid rise and success of Paxton and his “Horticultural Register and General Magazine” founded in 1832 but the review Loudon wrote in his “Gardening Magazine” was laced with bile and spite.

“(Chatsworth) has always appeared to us an unsatisfactory place” was just for openers. He found fault with everything of which Paxton was the proudest. One of his criticisms was that Paxton had used wood to frame the glass panes whereas Loudon had invented an iron glazing bar and believed that to be the better material. Paxton handled himself with immense dignity and eventually the two men saw the value in the other’s views. Paxton used iron to build the Crystal Palace.

Paxton had been steadily rising in the social scale by his sheer skill and ability to get things done. He was no longer a mere gardener in a nice cottage but a builder and a man of business. Before long the duke had invited him to dine at the big house and introduced him to useful people. The old saw about going to a busy person when you needed something done was true in his case. One could rely on Paxton. He was rewarded by increasing social acceptance as well as money. The duke never prevented him from taking on commissions outside Chatsworth. All this was the backdrop to him being chosen to design the Crystal Palace. The queen would knight him in 1852.

The idea of holding “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all the Nations” to celebrate the achievements of the British Empire in manufacturing and all associated arts had been mooted by very serious senior officials but it needed the imprimatur of royal involvement to get it going. Prince Albert stepped in.

He formed a royal commission in 1850 which promptly set up a competition for a building to hold the show. The committee received over two hundred and forty-five submissions in three weeks. Probably out of sheer frustration they ended up choosing a plan by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Time was becoming very short. All of this was closely followed in the press and Paxton was paying attention. The exhibition was supposed to open in October 1851.

Brunel’s design was very pedestrian, mainly built of brick. Not only was it ungainly, the cost was astronomical. Another defect was that it would be permanent, destroying much of  Hyde Park for good. There was a public outcry. Even though the official entry period was over members of the commission listened to Paxton very carefully. Not only was his design very attractive it was also far less expensive than the others.

Prince Albert has never quite had his due, playing second fiddle to the queen but he was extremely intelligent and well informed. Once the exhibition had ended it was he who came up with the idea of creating the museums and other major institutions in South Kensington using the space and materials left behind.

In 1849 Paxton had built a small new glass house at Chatsworth when the duke received seedlings of the fabled giant water lily, Victoria amazonica, known at that time as Victoria regia,  from Sir William Hooker at Kew. Its leaves spanned six feet. A child could stand on one of them perfectly safely. There was a race all over Europe to see who could get it to flower first in a temperate country. The duke won.

Paxton's daughter on a leaf of Victoria amazonica in  1849

The story goes that Paxton was at a meeting of the board of the Midland Railway when the idea for the Crystal Palace came to him. He sketched out the now familiar design based on the model of the house he had built for the lily. There is also a possibility that part of the inspiration came from the extraordinary system of veins under the lily leaves’ surface, providing their tensile strength.

The genius of Paxton’s work was that all the parts could be reliably prefabricated of cast iron, vastly decreasing the time needed to erect the complicated building. It was possible to build on a gigantic scale and still support all the expected weight and maintain stability in the face of high winds across Hyde Park. Paxton worked rapidly with skilled draftsmen and engineers to get the drawings ready for the commissioners in a very short time.

A bald recital of the dimensions and materials for the exhibition building is very telling. It was 1848 feet long, (not 1851 which plays on the date), 456 feet wide and 108 feet high at the transept. The surface area covered more than twenty acres allowing for more than ten miles of actual exhibition space within. All this was supported by slender cast iron pillars.

The concept was not new. Glass houses went back a long way in British gardening history from the early orangeries with tiny panes of glass to Turner’s great Palm House at Kew in Britain. There were also fine glass houses on the continent.

The Crystal Palace

The building was constructed remarkably quickly in just seven months. The queen opened it on time. Both the building and the exhibition itself  were an overwhelming success. Paxton did not sit around basking in this new glory but was very busy with the vast number of new commissions it engendered. He worked on Mentmore for the Rothschilds and at one of their French estates. He traveled widely all over the continent and even visited the United States.

The new Lady Paxton remained steadfastly at Chatsworth with the children, five girls and one boy, overseeing the expenses of the garden for him and checking everything carefully. She knew she could not participate in his new social circles.

Paxton grew really rich and was able to hang onto this money unlike so many men of his class. He had one severe disappointment in the behavior of his only son, George. All his life the boy was rebellious and would not accept discipline at home or at school. His parents tried everything they could think of in those as yet unenlightened times but nothing worked. Occasionally Paxton would take George with him on one of his tours but was constantly embarrassed and chagrined by his ill-tempered outbursts and rude manners. One can invoke psycho-babble and consider how a boy would feel whose father was so consistently successful, completely eclipsing anything the child could accomplish.

Early in 1865 Paxton had what was probably a heart attack and never really recovered. Six months later, on June 8, he was dead. Very little is known of what became of George, even the date or place of his death though he did have some children that Paxton enjoyed seeing. The estate was valued at £180 000.

References: Colquhoun, Kate  2006  The Busiest Man in England: a life of Joseph Paxton,  gardener, architect and Victorian visionary
Boston      David R. Godine

All images: Wikpidia in the Public Domain

Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject. 
Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989.
Dr Taylor’s web site is:

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