Aug 032018
 

Today is the birthday (1803) of Sir Joseph Paxton, an English gardener, architect and Member of Parliament, best known for designing the Crystal Palace https://www.bookofdaystales.com/crystal-palace/ , and for cultivating the Cavendish banana, the most commonly found banana in the Western world.

Paxton was born in 1803, the 7th son of a farming family, in Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire. Some references, incorrectly, list his birth year as 1801. This is, as he admitted in later life, a result of misinformation he provided in his teens, which enabled him to work at Chiswick Gardens. He became a garden boy at the age of 15 for Sir Gregory Osborne Page-Turner at Battlesden Park, near Woburn in Bedfordshire. After several moves, he obtained a position in 1823 at the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Gardens. The Horticultural Society’s gardens were close to the gardens of William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chiswick House. The duke met Paxton as he strolled in his gardens and became impressed with his skill and enthusiasm. He offered the 20-year-old Paxton the position of head gardener at Chatsworth, which was considered one of the finest landscaped gardens of the time.

Although the duke was in Russia, Paxton set off for Chatsworth on the Chesterfield coach arriving at Chatsworth at half past four in the morning. By his own account he had explored the gardens after scaling the kitchen garden wall, set the staff to work, eaten breakfast with the housekeeper and met his future wife, Sarah Bown (or Brown), the housekeeper’s niece, completing his first morning’s work before nine o’clock. He married Bown in 1827.

He enjoyed a friendly relationship with his employer who recognized his diverse talents and facilitated his rise to prominence. One of Paxton’s first projects was to redesign the garden around the new north wing of the house and expand Chatsworth’s collection of conifers into a 40-acre (16 hectare) arboretum which still exists. He became skilled at moving mature trees. The largest, weighing about eight tons, was moved from Kedleston Road in Derby. Among several other large projects at Chatsworth were the rock garden, the Emperor Fountain and rebuilding Edensor village.

While at Chatsworth, he built the Emperor Fountain in 1844, it was twice the height of Nelson’s Column and required the creation of a feeder lake on the hill above the gardens necessitating the excavation of 100,000 cubic yards (76,000 m3) of earth. In 1832, Paxton developed an interest in greenhouses at Chatsworth where he designed a series of buildings with “forcing frames” for espalier trees and for the cultivation of exotic plants such as highly prized pineapples. At the time the use of glass houses was in its infancy and those at Chatsworth were dilapidated. After experimentation, he designed a glass house with a ridge and furrow roof that would be at right angles to the morning and evening sun and an ingenious frame design that would admit maximum light: the forerunner of the modern greenhouse.

The next great building at Chatsworth was built for the first seeds of the Victoria regia lily which had been sent to Kew from the Amazon in 1836. Although they had germinated and grown they had not flowered and in 1849 a seedling was given to Paxton to try out at Chatsworth. He entrusted it to Eduard Ortgies, a young gardener and within two months the leaves were 4.5 ft (1.4 m) in diameter, and a month later it flowered. It continued growing and it became necessary to build a much larger house, the Victoria Regia House. Inspired by the waterlily’s huge leaves – ‘a natural feat of engineering’ – he found the structure for his conservatory which he tested by floating his daughter Annie on a leaf. The secret was in the rigidity provided by the radiating ribs connecting with flexible cross-ribs. Constant experimentation over a number of years led him to devise the glasshouse design that inspired the Crystal Palace. Named after William Cavendish, Cavendish bananas were cultivated by Paxton in the greenhouses of Chatsworth House in 1836. They now account for the vast majority of bananas consumed in the western world.

With a cheap and light wooden frame, the conservatory design had a ridge-and-furrow roof to let in more light and drained rainwater away. He used hollow pillars doubling as drain pipes and designed a special rafter that acted as an internal and external gutter. All the elements were pre-fabricated and, like modular buildings, could be