Gardener Grows Into Architectural Legend

A contemporary painting of Sir Joseph Paxton at work
A contemporary painting of Sir Joseph Paxton at work

by Ray Setterfield

May 9, 1826 — This was quite a day for Joseph Paxton. He arrived to start his new job at 4.30 in the morning, set to work men that he had not known before, then met and fell in love over breakfast with the girl who was to become his wife.

Paxton was a gardener and, aged only 20, had been working in London when he came to the notice of William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire.

Impressed by his talent and enthusiasm, the duke hired him as head gardener at Chatsworth, the Devonshire family’s large country house in Derbyshire.

What happened next is recorded in Paxton’s diary:

“I left London by the Comet Coach for Chesterfield; and arrived at Chatsworth at half-past four o’clock in the morning of the ninth of May, 1826.

“As no person was to be seen at that early hour, I got over the greenhouse gate by the old covered way, explored the pleasure grounds and looked round the outside of the house.

“I then went down to the kitchen gardens, scaled the outside wall and saw the whole of the place, set the men to work there at six o’clock; then returned to Chatsworth [to inspect] the water works.

“Afterwards went to breakfast with poor dear Mrs Gregory [the housekeeper] and her niece [Sarah Bown]. The latter fell in love with me and I with her, and thus completed my first morning’s work at Chatsworth before nine o’clock.”

Paxton and Sarah were married the following year. He went on to become the duke’s right-hand man, responsible, among many projects for the now famous Emperor Fountain, which can hurl a jet of water 300 feet into the air.

It was named for Czar Nicholas I of Russia who was due to visit Chatsworth in 1844 but who never arrived to see the masterpiece. The lake to feed the fountain was constructed over eight acres.

Paxton became famous, though, for his conservatories. The Great Conservatory at Chatsworth, started in 1837, was at the time the largest glass building in the world.

It was lit with twelve thousand lamps when Queen Victoria was driven through it in 1842 and she noted in her diary: “It is the most stupendous and extraordinary creation imaginable.”

And when a building was needed to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, Paxton was the man they turned to. His Crystal Palace was 1,850ft long, higher than Westminster Abbey and contained nearly 294,000 panes of glass. It took 2,000 men eight months to build it.

The Queen was impressed and Paxton was given a knighthood.

He remained close to the Duke of Devonshire for the rest of his life and was buried on the Chatsworth Estate after his death in 1865. Sarah remained at their house at Chatsworth until her death in 1871.

Published: July 21, 2017

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