The ‘Paxton’ Conservatory at Chiswick

Brentford & Chiswick Journal 2 (1981)

As a result of public interest in the Conservatory – also known as the Camellia House – in Chiswick House Grounds further information on the date of its construction has become known. It had once been thought that Joseph Paxton was involved in its construction. If so, this would have given it special prominence as one of the antecedents to the Crystal Palace which he designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Some confusion may have been caused by letters found in two manuscript collections and used by George Chadwick on p156 of his book, The Works of Joseph Paxton (Architectural Press 1961). Drawing on a letter from William Currey to Paxton, 16 Aug 1850, in the Markham Papers (Dr Violet Markham was Paxton’s grand-daughter) and a letter from the 6th Duke to Paxton in 1851 in the Devonshire MSS at Chatsworth, he writes that:

‘These baths (the hot baths at Buxton, 1853) were said to be designed by Henry Currey who had earlier been connected both with Decimus Burton and with Paxton (at Liverpool); Currey was related to the 6th Duke’s legal advisors, Benjamin Currey and his son William, and was later to carry out other works for the 7th Duke at Buxton. (He also) prepared a design for the long conservatory at Chiswick in 1850, Paxton being consulted on it afterwards at the Duke’s wish.’

There is one known building in Chiswick by Henry Currey – St Paul’s Church, on the Duke’s Grove Park estate. However, the Honorary Secretary of the Chiswick House Area Residents’ Association, writing to The Times on March 29 1981 about the present condition of the Conservatory, referred to a letter from the 6th Duke to his grandmother dated 11 October 1813, which mentioned the Conservatory.

In support the Hon Sec received some days later a letter from Robert Stanley-Morgan, an architect in Birmingham, who has in his possession the specification for the Conservatory. It originated in the office of Samuel Ware, the designer of the Burlington Arcade and other works for members of the Cavendish family. It was copied into a notebook by Henry Baker, one of Ware’s pupils, and found with other papers dated between 1812 and 1815.

Also it is worth quoting here the extract from Miss Berry’s Diary of 1 June 1813 printed by Warwick Draper in Chiswick, p 117: ‘Drove with the sixth Duke of Devonshire in his curricle to Chiswick where he showed me all the alterations he was about to make, in adding the gardens of Lady M Coke’s house (Sir Stephen Fox’s first house – just to the north) to his own. The house is down, and in the gardens he has constructed a magnificent hot-house, with a conservatory for flowers, the middle under a cupola. Altogether it is 300ft long’.

In 1813 Joseph Paxton was 10 years old and still living on his father’s farm in Bedfordshire. As Miss Berry’s note describes the Conservatory we have today it seems likely that if Currey’s designs were used at all it was for minor alterations and embellishments.

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