Joseph Paxton was an English gardener and architect who is chiefly remembered for designing one of most famous buildings of Victoria's reign ‘The Crystal Palace’. Born in England to a farming family, he held a number of gardening jobs until he began working at Chiswick Gardens of the Horticultural Society, adjacent to the gardens of the Duke of Devonshire. Impressed with his abilities, the Duke appointed Paxton head gardener at Chatsworth House, the Devonshire family's large country house in Derbyshire, where Paxton successfully went on to design gardens, fountains, a model village and an arboretum. He also married the Chatsworth housekeeper's niece, Sarah Bown. His moment of glory arrived with the 1851 Great Exhibition where he delivered a splendid design for the main hall in Hyde Park named as ‘The Crystal Palace’. The novelty of his extraordinary plan was its revolutionary, modular, prefabricated design and the extensive use of glass. Built within six months by 2000 men, the hall was a huge success and subsequently, Paxton was knighted by Queen Victoria. Thereafter, while retaining his post as the head gardener at Chatsworth, Paxton also took up a number of other projects such as working on the layout of public parks and helped in creating various country houses. Subsequently, he became wealthy through successful speculation in the booming railway industry and served as a Member of Parliament until his death.
Childhood & Early Life
Joseph Paxton was born on August 3, 1803, in Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire, in a farming family. He was the seventh son of a yeoman farmer.
At the age of 15, he became a garden boy for Sir Gregory Osborne Page-Turner at Battlesden Park, near Woburn. After changing several garden jobs, he obtained a position at the Horticultural Society's Chiswick Gardens, in 1823.
As the Horticultural Society's gardens were close to the gardens of William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, Paxton met Duke and the Duke was impressed with Paxton’s work. He offered Paxton the position of Head Gardener at Chatsworth, which Paxton gleefully accepted.
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In 1831, along with working as the head gardener, Paxton also started designing conservatories at Chatsworth using the ridge-and-furrow system of glazed roofs, a system invented by Loudon in 1817.
He distinguished himself with the ‘Great Stove’ conservatory at Chatsworth, built between 1836 and 1840, which was the largest glass building in the world at that time.
Subsequently, he designed the biggest glass-house in Europe, made up entirely using sheet-glass. The curved ridge-and-furrow glazed timber roof was carried on arched laminated-timber frames supported on cast-iron columns and buttressed by the side arches over the flanking aisles.
During 1838-48, he created the village of Edensor, near Chatsworth, drawing on a range of styles and also worked on public parks in Liverpool, Glasgow, Halifax, and Birkenhead Park, the last one of the first English public parks. He successfully constructed the 'emperor fountain', at 280 feet, the tallest in Europe.
During the 1840s, he continued to work on landscape gardening and lay out of public parks. He also designed various country houses and other domestic buildings.
In 1849–50, Paxton constructed a special conservatory for the large-leaved ‘Victoria regia’ lily, the exotic plant was flowered for the first time in England.
The structural advances in the lily-house helped in the creation of Paxton’s most influential work, The Crystal Palace, which housed the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations’ in London. The hall was designed and built between 1850 and 1851, for which Paxton drew on his experiences of greenhouses at Chatsworth.
The Crystal Palace was remarkable for several reasons; the building was designed so that all its constituent parts could be prefabricated, erected, and dismantled on site. It was the first example of a very large-scale industrialized building and took just over six months to build.
From 1852 to 1854, he laid out the gardens beside the re-erected and enlarged Crystal Palace at Sydenham, South London, which were widely appreciated. During the time, Paxton also collaborated in designing Mentmore Towers, Bucks, and a sumptuous country-house in the Jacobethan style for the Rothschild family.
Between 1850 and 1858, he carried out extensive alterations to the Devonshires' Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford, Ireland. He also designed the house and gardens at Ferrières, near Paris, in a French Renaissance style.
Paxton also served as a Member of Parliament for Coventry from 1854 until his death.
Paxton’s most elegant masterpiece was ‘The Crystal Palace’ for the ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851. The building was erected in just six months, with 293,655 panes of glass, 330 huge iron columns and 24 miles of gutters.
He also built the Great Conservatory or Stove, a huge glasshouse, and a lily house specially constructed for a giant lily with a design based on the leaves of the plant.
Awards & Achievements
He was knighted by Queen Victoria for his magnificent design of ‘The Crystal Palace’.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1827, Paxton married Sarah Bown, the Chatsworth housekeeper's niece, whom he met on his first day of work at Chatsworth.
Joseph Paxton died on June 8, 1865, at his home at Rockhills, Sydenham. His wife remained at their house on the Chatsworth Estate until her death in 1871.