by Kate Colquhoun, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 12, 2003
The Crystal Palace – Thackeray’s ‘blazing arch of lucid glass’ and one of the greatest memorials to Victorian engineering, architectural achievement and popular amusement – was destroyed by fire in the winter of 1936, all but taking the memory of its creator, Joseph Paxton, with it.
Paxton was a gardener first and last but he was also a pioneer among Victorian self-made men. His character sprang from the spirit of the age -determined by imagination, energy, motivation, and enthusiasm. An untrained engineer and architect, a revolutionary, the Crystal Palace was one of the greatest design and engineering feats of the 19th century. With his dogged single-mindedness, Paxton typified the bold new men with abundant creative energy who grew out of and formed the age of unparalleled industrial expansion, a quintessentially persevering pragmatist.
He was born the seventh son and last of the nine children of poor farm labourers in Bedfordshire on 3 August 1803. It was an auspicious year for a future gardener to be born – the Liverpool Botanical Gardens opened and the Horticultural Society was conceived; Joseph Banks sent William Kerr to collect plants in China and Humphrey Repton was about to publish his Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening.
On the death of his mother in 1823, with a rudimentary education and some experience in gardens in Bedfordshire, Paxton’s thoughts turned to London and the chance of advancement through the profession of gardening. He was almost 20 and, turning his attention to the new gardens of the Horticultural Society in Chiswick, he secured the direction of his own future.
The Society and Chiswick House
The creation of a Horticultural Society was the idea of John Wedgwood – son of the potter – who in 1803 had invited several of his friends – including Joseph Banks, William Forsyth from the Royal Gardens at Kensington and St James’s, William Townsend Aiton and others – to a meeting at the house of Hatchard, the famous bookseller in Piccadilly. There, Wedgwood presented the idea of forming a new national society for the improvement and co-ordination of horticultural activities.
Its regular meetings provided a forum for the encouragement of systematic enquiry, and it developed along increasingly organised lines. From 1807 its Transactions were bound together and published, joining the growing volume of literature available. Periodicals were made freely available to labourers and gardeners in the Society’s library in Regent Street.
In 1821 the Society announced the commencement of new experimental gardens on 33 acres of land leased from the 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chiswick House. Chiswick House was built in 1727-9 by the Duke’s great grandfather, Lord Burlington, assisted by his protege the architect, painter, artist and landscape gardener, William Kent, in the English Palladian style that he pioneered. It was an exquisite temple to the arts, filled with the Earl’s collection of paintings and architectural drawings, and conceived as a garden with a villa rather than the other way around — a carefully considered work of both architecture and horticulture where the cult of taste was celebrated and a new national style of gardening was born.
The gardens were classically ornamental, an example of Kent’s earliest experiments in the management of water and the grouping of trees. He converted a brook into a canal lake, and scattered Italian sculpture throughout the landscape of formal hedged avenues, pools, natural riverbanks and wide lawns; the cedars of Lebanon were reputed to be among the earliest introduced to England. Contemporaries claimed that this was the birthplace the ‘natural’ style of landscaping, that this was where Kent ‘leapt the fence’ and saw that all nature was a garden.
The 5th Duke commissioned Wyatt to add two substantial wings to the building and, in 1813, his son the 6th Duke, indulging his passion for building and for horticulture, gilded the velvet-hung staterooms, commissioned Lewis Kennedy to create a formal Italian garden and Samuel Ware – later the architect of the Burlington Arcade – to build a 300 foot long conservatory. It was backed by a brick wall and boasted a central glass and timber dome. In time, it would be filled with the recently introduced camellias which, along with the exotic animals, captured the very height of Regency fashion.
In 1820 the Duke’s sister Harriet wrote to her sister Georgiana that her brother was ‘improving Chiswick, opening and airing it: a few kangaroos, who if affronted will rip up anyone as soon as look at him, elks, emus, and other pretty sportive death-dealers playing about near it’, and ‘On Saturday we drove down to Chiswick . . . The lawn is beautifully variegated with an Indian Bull and his spouse and goats of all colours and dimensions. I own I think it a mercy that one of the kangaroos has just died in labour, [given] that they hug one to death’. Sir Walter Scott recorded in his diary that Chiswick House ‘resembled a picture of Watteau . . . the scene was dignified by the presence of an immense elephant, who, under the charge of a groom, wandered up and down, giving the air of Asiatic pageantry to the entertainment’.
In mid July 1821 the lease was agreed between the Duke of Devonshire and the Horticultural Society for 60 years at the cost of £300 a year. It included provision for a private door into the gardens for the Duke’s use. Early the following year, a young man who would become the first Professor of Botany at the new University College of London joined the Society as Assistant Secretary to the Garden – at £120 a year. A pioneer orchidologist and botanist whose own fortunes would later be linked with those of Paxton, John Lindley – at 23 only four years older than Paxton – was the son of a Norfolk farmer. Lindley was also a resident of Chiswick. He lived in Bedford House, Bedford Park from 1834 until his death in 1865.
With nothing of real substance to rival it – the Botanic Society was not founded until 1838 – the gardens at Chiswick now confirmed the Horticultural Society’s position of enormous influence and prestige. The Society became the hub of horticultural activity. From the outset, it saw itself as providing a national school for young, unmarried men to learn the craft of horticulture before being sent out to fill the situations of gardeners in private or public establishments.
Paxton comes to Chiswick
On 13 November 1823 Paxton entered the Horticultural Society’s gardens as a labourer. He had been quick off the mark, the fifth entrant listed in its records. In his neat hand he falsified his birthdate and therefore his age by some two years, with the implied benefit of a further two years’ schooling. This lie, in the context of his life taken as a whole, was out of character but perhaps he was unwilling to let anything stand in the way of this extraordinary new opportunity. So he took his place alongside Thomas McCann from Ireland, the first entrant in January 1822, Patrick Daly who had joined on 6 October and the various sons of shoemakers, seedsmen, stonecutters and farmers.
All were paid around 14s a week.
It is not entirely clear in which part of the gardens Paxton was initially employed, but with the library at his disposal he set about a rigorous regime of self-education, unaware that his future lay on the other side of the fence, with the owner of the camellias and kangaroos. From November, a prodigious amount of work was needed on the arboretum, a walled area of about seven and a half acres intended to have a specimen of every kind of hardy tree and shrub capable of enduring the English climate. This was a priority for the Society and necessitated the employment of many temporary labourers in the gardens. The council meeting notebooks show that Patrick Daly was in fact taken on as only a temporary labourer, probably in the arboretum, that he later showed promise and was kept on despite there being no obvious vacancy for him. Was Paxton, too, employed initially only temporarily? Did he hold his breath for those first few months in the tense hope of a permanent position?
The Chiswick gardens were, for a gardener, the only place to be. Paxton was surrounded by the rare and curious specimens sent by the Society’s own collectors as well as others – the value in rarity and beauty of the collection was considered greater than any other garden in the world. Within six months, he had moved to a position as labourer under the management of Mr Donald Munro, the Ornamental Gardener, who was in charge of the new plants. That year, the aspidistra was introduced from China, the fuchsia from Mexico, verbena, petunia and salvia from South America and one of the greatest of all the Society’s plant-hunters, David Douglas, was in the midst of his expedition to the north Pacific coast of America. During the 1820s Douglas introduced over 200 new plants including mimulus and lupins; now he sent orchidaceae which mingled with the exquisite new plants donated by the Directors of the East India Company and consuls abroad.
A year and a half after joining the Society, Paxton was offered the chance to apply for promotion as an under gardener back in the arboretum and by the end of March 1825 his thre-month trial period was completed satisfactorily and his wages increased to 18 shillings a week.
It was an auspicious time to work in the arboreturn. Only a handful of pines were cultivated in England – including the yew, silver fir, Norway spruce and the cedar of Lebanon planted widely in the 18th century by Capability Brown – but now the collection of conifers sent by Douglas from North America was ensuring his place in garden history. Among his many discoveries he sent back seeds of the Sitka spruce, beginning a passion for these huge evergreen novelties, the Monterey pine and, of course, the eponymous Douglas fir which could grow to over 90 metres. Another of the Society’s collectors, James Macrae sent seeds of the Monkey Puzzle tree (araucaria) – the favourite of the later Victorians – from his travels in Brazil, Chile, Galapagos and Peru in the two years from 1824.
Loudon calculated that around 700 species were brought to England in the first 30 years of the 19th century. Put in perspective, in 1500, perhaps 200 kinds of plants were actively cultivated in England, whereas by 1839 that figure had risen to over 18,000. Of those plants, evergreens were to transform the English garden and landscape, until now dominated by deciduous native trees.
Curiosity for new plants continued to grow so fast that, in 1827, the Society would hold its first ‘fete’ in the garden. Only a couple of years later, over 1,500 carriages would wait in a line extending from Hyde Park Corner for the doors to open at nine o’clock, despite torrential rain. But now, Paxton was witnessing the latest architectural and engineering technologies, examining the plants and techniques in the various departments, and spending time in the Society’s library with the latest catalogues. He found himself in good company – the authority and distinction of the gardens was attracting labourers from some of the largest estates in England and abroad.
Move to Chatsworth
Then, he was offered a position that was to settle the course of his future entirely. ‘On April 22nd Joseph Paxton, under gardener in the arboretum, left, recommended a place’. These council meeting notes of 4 May 1826 betray nothing of the fact that this was a defining moment in the young man’s life. He had been offered the position of Superintendent of the Gardens at Chatsworth – to all intents and purposes head gardener at one of the grandest estates in England and for one of the richest aristocrats in the land – the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Paxton was to be paid 25s a week, or £70 a year, and live in a cottage in the kitchen gardens.
The immensely rich George Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, had apparently encountered Paxton as he let himself into the gardens through the gate from Chiswick House. Son of the celebrated Georgiana, the 6th Duke had inherited his title when he was 21, in the year after Paxton’s father died. With it came estates comprising nearly 200,000 acres of land, stately homes, castles and two other great London palaces – Devonshire House and Burlington House. With an inherited income of over £70,000, he had the world at his feet.
Given his particularly Regency interest in new, valuable and exotic plants, the Duke is likely to have sought out labourers with experience in the Ornamental Garden, where Paxton had been occupied in tending the new plants. In Paxton he found a straightforward youth, self-effacing as well as confident, passionate about his plants, full of energy, bright and patient. He was young and unproven but the Duke was without a gardener at Chatsworth and he acted impulsively – the appointment is not even noted in the detailed daily journal he kept for many years. He was anxious to be off – on 7 April the King had approved of his replacing Wellington as Extraordinary Ambassador to the Court of St James for the coronation of the Czar Nicholas I in Russia.
On 8 May, two weeks after leaving the Society as a Fellow – and not yet quite 23 – Paxton collected his instructions from Devonshire House and took the coach to Chatsworth. Together, in an unlikely but astonishingly fruitful pairing, he and the Duke would make the gardens at Chatsworth famous again after almost 50 years of neglect, working together until the 6th Duke’s death in 1858, by which time the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park had come and gone and the second expanded Crystal Palace stood glittering on the hilltop of Norwood in South London.
Over the next three decades, Paxton would perfect at Chatsworth the kind of garden features requiring large space and a deep purse – a pinetum, a larger arboretum, the highest gravity-fed fountain in the world, the largest glasshouse ever seen prior to the Crystal Palaces, a rockery, a pleasure ground and flower gardens the envy of every aristocrat in the land. Chatsworth became the most visited country house in England.
Paxton was not only the greatest florist and gardener of the 19th century, but growing out of his experiments with glasshouses at Chatsworth, he designed the largest glass buildings in the world, using revolutionary technology that pressaged modern prefabrication construction techniques. Paxton also changed the face of urban Britain through his domination of public park design. Birkenhead, the first ever public park, was the direct inspiration for Central Park, New York and remains the only Grade I listed municipal park in England while, at the other end of the spectrum, the commercial Crystal Palace park, with its massed floral bedding displays appealed entirely to the prevailing Victorian fashion for the gaudy, the epitome of the gardenesque in England.
In addition, Paxton was the architect of massive brick edifices for the Rothschilds throughout Europe, became an active railway promoter and MP, invented and formed the first Civil Engineering corps for the army in Crimea and was later instrumental in pushing through the bill for the embankment of the north side of the Thames. Outliving his great friends and contemporaries, George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, he died in 1865, 40 years after leaving the proving grounds in Chiswick. He was only 63.
Kate Colquhoun is a freelance writer who lives in Shepherds Bush. This article is based on material from her book: A Thing in Disguise, the Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton, which will be published by Fourth Estate in July 2003.