Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) is not a name that usually springs to mind when discussing notable gentlemen of the Victorian age. But he ranks as highly as any Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Alexander Graham Bell. Despite lacking a second Christian-name…
Joseph Paxton was a pioneer of architecture and horticulture, most famous for his Crystal Palace; the name of which has now been woven into the fabric of South London for over 175 years. In an age where there was no limit to what could be created or invented, and where no invention was too hare-brained to receive financial backing, bold-thinking gentlemen were the kings of the age. Joseph Paxton had grand ideas, and, encouraged and funded by some of the wealthiest families in the land, he turned many of these ideas into reality, and all with pure gentlemanly aplomb. No arrogance, no bombast, but with confidence and assurance, he drew from his inspirations and made wonderful things happen.
Born to a large farming family in Bedfordshire, he was a Garden Boy at Battlesden Park near Woburn by the age of fifteen. He soon moved to London and joined the Horticultural Society when he won a place at Chiswick Gardens – a position that he gained by claiming on a form that he was two years older than his actual age. Gentlemen don’t lie of course – but teenagers, it seems, have always bent the truth somewhat. Regardless, he attacked his new role at The Horticultural Society with skill, creativity and enthusiasm.
Gentlemen from far and wide came to Chiswick Gardens to stroll and muse on their affairs, and Joseph Paxton caught the eye of The Duke of Devonshire. Impressed with his abilities in the gardens, the Duke offered the now 20-year old Paxton the position of Head Gardener at his Derbyshire residence, Chatsworth House. This was no mean feat; the gardens at Chatsworth already had an enviable reputation as the finest of the time.
Paxton eagerly left on the first available coach, arriving at Chatsworth at half past four, one morning. The Duke was away in Russia and so by scaling the garden walls, Paxton explored his new gardens. By nine o’clock that morning, he had put all the ground staff to work and, over breakfast with the housekeeper’s family, had met his future wife, the housekeeper’s niece. A Gentleman certainly wastes no time.
His time at Chatsworth was full of fertility and creativity; his employer continuing to encourage the enthusiasm that he saw in Paxton back in Chiswick. During his time there, Paxton was fascinated by enormity and marvelled at the strength and power of nature. He became skilled at moving massive trees to replant elsewhere on the grounds; he built the eight-acre Emperor Lake just to feed The Emperor’s Fountain that he was commissioned to create (reaching a height of 298 feet and built for a proposed visit by Tsar Nicholas 1st, it was the highest fountain in the world); and in 1840 Paxton even designed and rebuilt the entire village of Edensor that had been moved off the Chatsworth estate by the previous Duke.
Paxton redesigned that most Gentlemanly of havens: the greenhouse, when he was tasked with the job of encouraging a seed of the huge Amazonian water-lily (Victoria regia) to flower. This had never been accomplished in Europe and Paxton set about building a large glass house within which to do so. The leaves of this particular lily become very large in order to support the gigantic flower, and soon he had a monster on his hands, with leaves nearly five feet in diameter. A bigger glass house was built and the lily did indeed bloom in magnificence. But it was the leaves that struck Paxton as incredible. How did nature create such strength from simple greenery? So impressed was he by these leaves, that he famously had his nine year old daughter stand on one to demonstrate its load-bearing qualities.
This “natural feat of engineering” inspired his next work at Chatsworth, The Great Conservatory, which would become a fore-runner to The Crystal Palace. Nature had provided Paxton with a blueprint. The hollow supporting ribs within the leaves of the Amazonian lily were connected by smaller, flexible cross-ribs. Constant experimentation on this design and with different materials led Paxton to create pre-fabricated, modular structures of glass, steel and wood that could be made in large numbers and joined together in a variety of designs. When completed, The Great Conservatory at Chatsworth was the largest glass building in the world.
His experiments in pre-fabricated glass structures garnered much interest back in London when he happened to mention his findings to a friend on the Royal Commission. The beleaguered Royal Commission had been appointed to organise The Great Exhibition of 1851 and wanted to house it all within a temporary structure in Hyde Park. All but two of the 245 submissions had been rejected for being too permanent (let us remember that the Eiffel Tower was a temporary structure for the World’s Fair of 1889) and there was a public outcry at the potential desecration of Hyde Park.
Paxton was persuaded to submit plans to the Royal Commission but had only nine days in which to do so. He had obligations for four days, then, while at a meeting of Midland Railways, of which he was Director, it was noticed that he spent most of his time doodling on scrap paper. By the end of the meeting he had completed his first sketch of The Crystal Palace. After some huffing and puffing from other more reticent members of the commission, Paxton, with a doff of his cap, did what he needed to do to succeed and sidestepped the commission entirely, publishing his design in The Illustrated London News. The world fell in love with the plans and Paxton was given the green light.
At nearly 2000 ft long, 400 ft wide and 100 ft high, The Crystal Palace of Hyde Park required 293,000 panes of glass – and yet was a temporary structure, being moved to affluent Sydenham in 1852. Paxton amazed the world at The Great Exhibition with his incredible palace. Its clear walls and ceilings needed no interior lighting and within its 990,000 square footage, exhibitors from around the globe came to showcase the latest amazing technological developments of the Industrial Revolution. Paxton was honoured with a knighthood.
In its South London location, the iconic building continued to attract crowds from around the world and it was a source of great national pride for many years, until, like so many older London landmarks that have been consigned to history, it was consumed by flames. In fact 100,000 people gathered on Sydenham Hill to watch the building disappear in an inferno that could be seen in eight counties.
Sir Joseph Paxton was also a respected botanical author and a Member of Parliament, but his groundbreaking designs in architecture truly defined him during an age of invention and wonder. That his most famous design was inspired by the leaf of a lily, defines Paxton as a Gentleman like no other: delicate, complex and steadfast.