A Thing in Disguise - The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton

Kate Colquhoun. Fourth Estate £18.99

Who were the great Victorians? Names like Gladstone and Disraeli, Dickens and Tennyson, spring to mind, but one of the greatest Victorian achievers was neither a politician (although he did serve as a Liberal MP later in life) nor a writer, but a gardener, Joseph Paxton, known to Norwood residents as the designer of the Crystal Palace. In her admirably succinct biography (the text runs to just 250 pages and the rest consists of notes, bibliography and an index) Kate Colquhoun tells the story of how a humble farm labourer’s son from Bedfordshire became the greatest horticulturist of his day and then an architect, designer, entrepreneur and one of the heroes of the early Victorian age. The book was serialised by BBC Radio as its ‘Book of the Week’ in July 2003 and it deserves to have many readers.

Born in 1803, the seventh son and last of the nine children of his (by then) elderly parents, Joseph Paxton had an unpropitious childhood, but, starting as a gardener’s boy at the age of 15, within five years he had been taken on as a labourer at the Horticultural Society’s gardens in Chiswick. These were the years when, following the 18th Century voyages of exploration, hundreds of exotic plant species had been brought to Britain for the great landed aristocrats. The Chiswick gardens were on land belonging to George Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, who soon ‘talent-spotted’ the young Paxton and in 1826 appointed him head gardener at his grand estate of Chatsworth in Derbyshire. The Duke, who had left for Russia that morning, was not present to welcome his new gardener one early May morning, but Paxton recorded in his journal that, having arrived off the London coach at 4.30am, he climbed the wall to inspect the grounds, allocated work to the labourers as they arrived at 6am, and by 9am was sitting down to breakfast with the housekeeper and her niece Sarah Brown, a mill-owner’s daughter with a private fortune of £5,000, a considerable sum of money in those days. He and Sarah fell in love at first sight and were married within a year.

Paxton was to continue his career at Chatsworth as energetically (and as successfully) as he had begun it. The Duke, unusually for those days of rigid class divisions, befriended Paxton and took him on many visits abroad, making him in time his general man of affairs and manager. In return, Paxton improved the Chatsworth gardens enormously, planting the largest arboretum in Europe there and installing the highest gravity-fed fountain in the world. His greatest achievement at Chatsworth was the Great Stove, a gigantic heated greenhouse and, perhaps, the inspiration for the later Crystal Palace. He planned public parks, the one at Birkenhead being the model for Central Park in New York.

When a commission under the presidency of Prince Albert was set up to plan a Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, to be held in 1851, it was Paxton’s astonishing design for a prefabricated glass and iron building (nick-named ‘the Crystal Palace’ by Douglas Jerrold of Punch) that won the competition against the odds. Comprising nine hundred thousand square feet of glass and covering one million square feet of floor space, this amazing building six times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral was constructed in twenty-two weeks. Despite weeks of incessant rain, which hampered the finishing of the building, the Great Exhibition opened on time on 1st May 1851 and ran until 11th October that year. The Queen in her diary recalled the opening day as a thousand times superior to her coronation and noted that everyone seemed truly happy, none more so that Joseph Paxton ‘who may be justly proud; he rose from being a common gardener’s boy’.

The Exhibition had been a huge success, but the Crystal Palace Company, formed to build and run the Palace, had already secured land at Norwood Heights close to the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway’s line on which a larger and more complex Crystal Palace was to be erected and open in June 1854. Paxton, by now Sir Joseph Paxton, was given the use of a large house, Rockhills, at the top of the hill and close to the Palace, convenient for London as well as for viewing his creation. The Crystal Palace, although never the success its entrepreneurs had envisaged, was to remain until destroyed by the disastrous fire of November 1936.

Paxton, who had no formal qualifications either as an architect or as a civil engineer, went on to other achievements. He designed mansions at Mentmore in Buckinghamshire and at Ferrieres in France for the Rothschilds. He produced a design for a vast glassed-in arcade, ten miles long, that would link the London rail termini, providing roads, railways and pedestrian walkways. Although approved by a Parliamentary commission, this project was never constructed. In his later years Paxton was the director of many railway companies, responsible for lines in Spain and India, as well as throughout the length and breadth of England. A ‘workaholic’ of unflagging energy, Paxton did not lighten his work-load as he got older. His five daughters were a joy to him, but his surviving son George (as is often the case with the offspring of highly successful men) became a drunk and a debauched playboy and caused him much vexation. Inevitably the years of unceasing work (and a diet of heavy Victorian banquets) took their toll on Paxton’s health and he died of heart and liver failure at Rockhills on 8th June 1865 at the comparatively early age of 61. His body was brought back to Chatsworth, his ‘true spiritual home’ as Colquhoun describes it, to be buried within yards of his friend the 6th Duke.

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