Monday, 7 January 2013

Sir Joseph Paxton

We went for a walk near Chatsworth House today.  They have cleaned the stone and painted parts of it gold ... it's looking great!
Chatsworth House
Joseph Paxton - 1803 - 1865
Chatsworth Head Gardener
 Joseph Paxton was a remarkable man.  He was born in 1803, the seventh son of a poor farmer.  He was not formally educated as he left home at 15 to work as a gardener at Battlesden Park near Woburn. By the age of 19 his talent for design showed through when he created his first lake.

A year later he applied for a job at the  Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Gardens.  He was only 20 years old so he added a couple of years to improve his chances.  He got the job but some historical records still state he was born in 1801 due to this falsehood. 

 He had a flair for his job and developed a reputation for hard work.  After only a year he was promoted to foreman. Over the course of the next two years Paxton became known to William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, and owner of Chatsworth House.  Cavendish was a hugely important man at the time: he was Chamberlain to King William IV; owned vast tracks of land and was a personal friend of such people as  Charles Dickens and Czar Nicholas I of Russia.  One of his properties was next door to Chiswick and the Duke would frequently take a short cut through the garden.  He was so impressed by the young Paxton that he offered him the post of Head Gardener at Chatsworth.  Paxton was 23 years old.

Apparently Paxton accepted the position and immediately caught a train to Chatsworth.  He climbed over a wall to gain admittance because the Duke was abroad.  He spent his first day wandering round the grounds and meeting the housekeeper's daughter - she was destined to become Mrs Paxton.

The Duke developed a passion for gardening after meeting Paxton and the two men made radical changes to the grounds around Chatsworth.  Over the next six years Paxton designed an arboretum, fountains and a model village.
Between 1836 and 1842 he created this magnificent structure:
It cost £33,000 to build and at the time it was the largest glass building in the world.  Queen Victoria took a carriage ride through it.  It was heated by coal which had to be transported in small trains through underground tunnels.  It proved far too costly to heat during the First World War (and they didn't have the staff to keep it going anyway) so all the plants died.  It had to be demolished in 1923.  It had been so well built it took four attempts to blow it up.

Another one of Paxton's structures which has been lost to us was built to house a giant lily named after Queen Victoria, Victoria amazonica, Paxton had been given the specimen after it had failed to flower for the staff at Kew Gardens.  The Chatsworth gardeners succeeded.  The leaves of the plant are large enough to accommodate a child.
In 1844 Czar Nicholas I of Russia declared his intention to visit Chatsworth the following year.  The Duke wanted something to impress his guest and Paxton designed The Emperor's Fountain.  An eight-acre lake was dug on the moors 350 feet above the house to supply the water pressure needed.  It took six months to construct but the Czar died before he could make the journey.  The fountain has reached a height of 90ft but tends to operate at half that pressure.  Here's a YouTube video of it in operation.
After the Great Exhibition the Crystal Palace was moved to Penge

Paxton is most famous for designing Crystal Palace - the building that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Over 200 designs were submitted.  Paxton drew his on a piece of blotting paper. The building  was erected in just six months, with 293,655 panes of glass, 330 huge iron columns and 24 miles of gutters.  It was destroyed by fire in 1936.

Sir Paxton was knighted in 1851.  He died in 1865.  He had packed a lot into his 62 years:

  • During the 1830s Paxton was editor of a horticultural magazine and set up The Daily News ( appointing Charles Dickens as editor).
  • Paxton's Flower Garden was published in three volumns between 1850 and 1853
  • He was a leading figure in the railways and improved his wealth through investing in their development. 
  • From 1854 to 1865 he was MP for Coventry.  
  • We can still see his influence today in many of our public parks as he was responsible for landscaping in many parts of the country.

An illustration from Paxton's Flower Garden:


  1. A very interesting post. I watched a t.v. documentary some time ago about the renovations which were taking place on Chatsworth House, thoroughly enjoyable.

  2. Chatsworth what a beautiful place to visit! It's a shame the magnificent glasshouse had to be demolished. I knew about Paxton but I did not know this story, I enjoyed it.

  3. Thanks for all the history on Chatsworth--I had no idea. The house looks great after all the cleaning/renovation!