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Gardens and a glass act
(Filed: 12/08/2003)

Aileen Reid reviews A Thing in Disguise: the Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton by Kate Colquhoun

On a November night in 1936, an era came to an apocalyptic end: high on a hill in south London, the Crystal Palace burned down, its metal frame glowing white hot, shooting out flames that could be seen 50 miles away on the south coast. "Queen Victoria is dead at last," wrote Bernard Shaw with satisfaction.

It is with this arresting image of purification by fire that Kate Colquhoun kicks off her Life of Joseph Paxton, the creator of the Crystal Palace. Paxton was just as much a Victorian archetype as the building he designed. A farm labourer's son who became an intimate friend of the Duke of Devonshire, he revolutionised horticulture, created the most instantly recognisable building of the 19th century, was knighted and left a fortune accrued through speculation on that other engineering wonder of the age, the railways.

It was an auspicious time for a young man to choose gardening for a career. Since the mid-18th-century there had been an explosion in the cultivation of plants and gardens, as earnest expeditions brought back now-familiar exotica - aspidistras, orchids, conifers - from East and West. New societies for the scientific study and propagation of plants sprouted, and Paxton, as a student at the new Horticultural Society's gardens in Chiswick, was fortunate to catch the eye of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, a bachelor with a taste for exotic flora and fauna and the deep purse to indulge it.

In 1826, aged 22, Paxton was appointed head gardener at Chatsworth. On his first day he arrived in the early hours, climbed over the walls, gave his 1,000-acre domain a quick inspection, set the men to work by 6 am and by 9 had fallen in love with the housekeeper's niece. They were married within the year.

This hectic pace and sense of purpose are the leitmotiv of Paxton's life. The gardens at Chatsworth had been neglected for 50 years under the Duke's mother, the glamorous Duchess Georgiana. Under Paxton's care they were transformed. Rockeries, cascades and lakes were built. More than two million trees were planted by the Duke. Flowers and fruit of every variety turned the Derbyshire estate into a Garden of Eden.

But Paxton's greatest passion was greenhouses, essential accommodation for the delicate specimens arriving from warmer climates. His experiments culminated in the Great Stove, a "jewel box" designed to house the results of a plant-gathering expedition to India that the Duke had sponsored. The "stove" was a vast glasshouse more than 200ft long and nearly 70ft high, its ridged, double curved sides like "a sea of glass . . . settling and smoothing down after a storm".

It was Paxton's work on the Great Stove - and, he said, studying the thin-but-strong leaf construction of the giant water lilies he cultivated there - that inspired the building that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. Paxton was vexed by the failure of other designers to produce something temporary, simple and economic - the site in Hyde Park had to be cleared after the Exhibition. What better than a large greenhouse? Paxton came up with his design during a particularly dull meeting of a railway company of which he was a director - the tiny, lovingly preserved sketch on blotting paper is an evocative image. The design was published in the Illustrated London News and Punch christened it the Crystal Palace, after which no other architect got a look in.

That the exhibition was such a success owed a lot to the Crystal Palace building itself. The story of the Exhibition and the Crystal Palace is one of ever-more astounding statistics - a building 2,000 ft long, covering 21 acres, housing 15,000 exhibits, which attracted 6 million visitors. Overnight Paxton became a celebrity, and he was knighted by the Queen at Windsor.

Joseph Paxton comes across as a thoroughly likeable man, unlike many driven, self-made geniuses. The description of his devotion to the Duke of Devonshire is most touching. Although the Duke undoubtedly took advantage of Paxton, whisking him at little notice around Europe and Ireland and "hither and thither and Lord knows where" as Paxton once wrote plaintively to his wife, he knew Paxton's true worth as an employee and a friend. He took Paxton shooting, and introduced him to many of his wealthy and aristocratic friends, including the Rothschilds (Paxton became almost their "house architect"). Paxton repaid the Duke's kindness liberally - he passed up the chance to be the Director of Kew Gardens to stay in the Duke's employment.

Paxton's was a breathtaking life. Despite his commitments to the Duke, he still found time to edit several gardening publications and books, to devise the first public park in the world (at Birkenhead - it inspired Central Park in New York), found a daily newspaper - the Daily News, briefly edited by Dickens - and become a Liberal MP.

Not all the schemes hatched by his fertile brain were winners, of course. The "Great Victorian Way", an elevated glassed-over road and railway system around the centre of London came to nothing - his plan for using human sewage as a fertiliser also sank without trace.

William Morris was famously said to have died relatively young from "being William Morris". Being Joseph Paxton must have been just as exhausting, and he was dead at 61. He left more than 8 million in today's money to his long-suffering wife, but was buried close to the Duke in Derbyshire.

Kate Colquhoun has written an exemplary Life of this most important and attractive personality. She has clearly done her homework, reading through the appropriate letters and diaries, yet there is nothing clotted or pedantic about the result - she writes with such novelistic elan (the descriptions of fruit and flowers are especially luscious) that it is hard to believe, as the scanty blurb on the back flap claims, that this is her first book. Let us hope that it is the first of many.

Aileen Reid contributed to 'Ruskin and Architecture', ed G. Brandwood and R. Daniels, just published by Spire.

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