Paxton, The Quite Unaltered Gardener

Published 1966

‘Paxton, the quite unaltered gardener’; those were the words of the sixth Duke of Devonshire after receiving news that Joseph Paxton’s design for a glass building to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 had been accepted. They admirably sum up a remarkable man whose modesty was never spoilt by success. Son of a small farmer, Paxton learnt to read and write at the village school of Milton Bryant, Bedfordshire, where he was born on 3 August 1803. But he was a natural scholar with a love of poetry and philosophy and, while still in his teens, was able to write excellent prose.

The early death of his father threw Paxton on the world when he was still only a child, and he was fifteen when he took his first gardening job, which was at Battlesden, near his home. Two years later he had transferred to Woodhall Park, Hertfordshire, where he obtained a useful grounding from the head gardener. In 1823 Paxton’s desire for further knowledge led him to apply for work at Chiswick House Gardens which the Horticultural Society had leased from the Duke of Devonshire, and it was there the Duke first encountered this intelligent young man. Everything about him suggested enterprise and, after several friendly chats, the Duke offered him the post of head gardener at Chatsworth at a salary of £70, and a cottage on the estate.

During more than thirty years’ service with the Devonshires, Paxton transformed the grounds at Chatsworth into the best designed in the kingdom, and invented a new type of glasshouse in which a larger area of glass replaced the old heavy ironwork. His great conservatory (1837-1840), with its vast curvilinear roof, was then the largest in the world.

The Duke took his gardener abroad on several plant-hunting expeditions and once on the Grand Tour; all of which were joyous experiences for Paxton, who could never have enough of such adventures. Much affection and understanding existed between master and man, and the Duke was wont to consult him on many matters. His capacity for design led Paxton to modernise the neighbouring village of Edensor, equipping it with comfortable water-piped dwellings at a time when such schemes were practically unknown. But the peak of his fame is bound up with the Victoria Regina lily which refused to blossom at Kew, and for which Paxton built a special forcing-house at Chatsworth in which the plant was accommodated in a circular tank, and prospered exceedingly. Composed of iron and glass, this house had a ridge-and-furrow roof which could be adjusted to admit the right amount of light and heat necessary for the flower’s well-being.

Late Competition Entry

It may be recalled that in the competition for an exhibition building 245 designs were submitted, none of which was definitely accepted, and the Building Committee, which included the architects Cockerell, Barry and Donaldson, the engineers Robert Stephenson and I. K. Brunel, and the builder William Cubitt, prepared a design of their own. Almost at the 11th hour Paxton, who had not taken part in the competition, produced his own remarkable design and had it published in the ‘Illustrated London News’ . He had mapped out a preliminary sketch on blotting-paper while presiding over a Midland Railway meeting, but had great difficulty in persuading the exhibition’s commissioners to consider his final draft. When they did so, acceptance was almost immediate, allowing Paxton 17 weeks to complete all arrangements. But for the influence and support of Price Albert, the design might not have been accepted. The Crystal Palace was designed to be erected on mass-production lines. Interchangeability of parts enormously speeded up assembly, and 18,392 panes of glass were actually fitted into the roof by 80 men in one week.

Paxton’s original design (which had to be slightly modified) was for a parallelogram, 1,848 ft. by 450 ft. by 66 ft., divided into 11 avenues by slender iron columns. The central transept bore a 108 ft. high semicircular roof; and a firm foundation was given to the whole building by the base of each column being inserted into horizontal drainpipes. Above they were interconnected by iron girders to form an open trellis. To deal with condensation, Paxton furnished the lower sash-bars of every pane with a duct which directed all moisture into specially designed gutters. His reward for the Crystal Palace was £5,000 and a knighthood. When it was removed to Sydenham, he enlarged it and designed the grounds in which it stood.

In 1850 Baron de Rothschild had asked Paxton to build him a house at Mentmore, Buckinghamshire, and when this was finished he commissioned another, this time at Forrieres, France. After that Paxton acted as the de Rothschild family architect and, assisted by his Stokes son-in-law, he designed another house for them which was at Geneva. The hallmark of success in Paxton’s day was to enter Parliament and in 1854 he was elected Liberal M.P. for Coventry, which he was to represent almost the rest of his life. It was Paxton who was largely responsible for sending ‘navvies’ to the Crimea to help the troops.

When the Government were considering schemes to solve London’s traffic problems he submitted an endearing plan for an 111⁄2 mile glass-enclosed circular way to be called ‘The Great Victorian Way’. It was to be two-tiered, the lower level to accommodate a central roadway with houses and shops, while above Londoners swept round the metropolis along eight lines of railway track. ‘Ingenious and useful’ is how the Prince Consort described it, but the authorities preferred the choking fumes of an underground railway. Paxton’s public works were tirelessly pursued to the end of his days. He took a big part in sewer-siting during the construction of the Victoria Embankment, and designed parks for Birkenhead, Glasgow and Dunfermline. His final task was to build a house for the owner of Battlesden Park, where he had once worked as a garden boy.

In the spring of 1865 his health deteriorated so rapidly that he had to retire from Parliament, but felt able to attend a flower-show in the Crystal Palace at the end of May. This was the last time he ever entered the building with which his name was to be forever linked. He died suddenly on 8 June, one hundred years ago, and was buried in Edensor churchyard close to his friend and master, the sixth Duke of Devonshire.

Frances Collingwood. (Reprinted from “Building “ by courtesy of the Editor Ian Leslie.)

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