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Joseph Paxton (1803-1865)

An opportunist, perhaps interloper, Paxton was every part the parody Victorian


Source: Emily Forgot

Paxton is Python parody Victorian: assuming all things northern he worked himself to death. Starting out at Chatsworth he’d done a whole day’s work and met his future wife before breakfast. Later, on his endless rounds of business he’d not eat for days. Lowly beginnings as a Bedfordshire gardener had him plucked from poverty by the Duke of Devonshire, but even hobnobbing with the Rothschilds didn’t buy happiness; he died at 61 with a dissolute son banished for pissing it up the wall.

Paxton learnt his trade perfecting the Duke’s greenhouses for the more fibrous products of empire. He cultivated them, drew them and published manuals. He perfected ridge and furrow glass roofing to optimise morning and evening sun and special beams that acted as gutters plus the machines to fabricate them.

In a lecture of 1850, the first of his life, he explains his progress step by step; his pleasure at the design of the notching machine to obviate smears of putty on the glass, and adding a chamfer for further efficiency, then leaning our first conservatory against a local villa. It is clear these are satisfyingly small victories, but they culminated in the Great Stove palm house at Chatsworth in the 1830s, afforded by the Duke’s wealth, for an actual crystal palace was an impossibility until the repeal of the glass tax in 1845.

‘Paxton was a conniver who bullishly forged a primitive design and build contract to the dismay of the architectural profession but delight of his client’

It was the railways that prefigured the girders of the Crystal Palace (1851). The railways must have appealed like the sprouting of shoots. The prototypically bourgeois Paxton invested, and it was precipitous encounters on his own railway platforms, in railway carriages, sketches in railway meetings and drawings by railway engineers that secured its progress.

Reciprocally the Crystal Palace propagated a series of international exhibition halls extolling free trade that are the antecedents of today’s ginormous convention centres. We tend not to consider these ExCeLs except to marvel at their sheer size, their infrastructural importance and to wonder at the human zoo found within, but in their genesis they represented the power mongering that would climax in the First World War and a crisis for more academic architects. The brainchild of Prince Albert, the Crystal Palace was conceived in such great haste (‘Not a week to spare!’) that mere architects couldn’t manage the brief.

Paxton was an opportunist, perhaps interloper, a conniver behind the scenes fixed by Henry Cole who bullishly forged a primitive design and build contract to the dismay of the architectural profession but delight of his client. The statistics were monumental, Dickens noting the 400 tons of glass, 34 miles of guttering tube, 205 miles of sash-bar and so on. It was also impressive as economics, a text-book implementation of the division of labour, where, as Adam Smith might have put it, in a day 10 men can make 48,000 pins, while by themselves each might fashion 20. Despite being the architectural equivalent of landing on the moon, it even made money (£186,000). Cole could later fund Albertopolis and the Royal College of Art.

And building became an event, the ‘Crystal Palace’ a slogan; it was a house of cards, a sieve, and oven, an accident waiting to happen: Pugin was even building a papist lair (medieval community) within. Coincidentally, we have Henry Fox Talbot, pioneer photographer. Six million people visited over six months, precipitated of course by rail (2,000 miles laid in the 1840s). But once the spectacular element had been assimilated, Leonardo Benevelo would have it that the French did it better in the Galerie des Machines (1889) with extraordinary moving gantries and Gustave Eiffel with his preposterous, but highly effective, tower.


Joseph Paxton



Head gardener at Chatsworth until 1858: greenhouses including the Victoria Regia House (1849), and Great Stove (from 1837)
Public parks in Liverpool, Birkenhead, Glasgow, Halifax,
Director of Midland Railway, 1848
Crystal Palace, London, 1851
Mentmore Towers, Bucks, 1854
Château de Ferrières,
nr Paris, 1859


The Horticultural Register
Magazine of Botany
Founded The Gardeners’ Chronicle


Liberal MP for Coventry, 1854-1865


‘Botany, the science of the vegetable kingdom, is one of the most attractive, most useful, and most extensive departments of human knowledge. It is, above every other, the science of beauty’

As an experience it was also a new phenomenon, a delirium, nobody had ever seen such an apparently invisible total building before (only train stations and arcades suitably dressed) within which came a whole mad world. It was even fitted out with large magnifying glasses overhead, so that the visitors might experience unexpected and ever more disorientating views.

So to focus on prefabrication rather than the spectacle might be a mistake. Down the line, Le Corbusier enthused over the organisation and anonymous order when he wrote the Palace’s obituary in 1937, but high-tech is dogged with notions of boys and toys. Miles of factory-made, ever more efficient, ever cheaper components sliding and slotting effortlessly into place in the sunshine of a moment have in reality remained a dream. Each toilet stacked up the side of Lloyd’s of London was apparently the price of a four-bedroom house. These days, as Francesca Hughes puts it, the more we corner physical error, the more we seem to fear it.

Impossible to imagine Britain running an Empire (not even Scotland), the timbre of criticism has swung to morbidity. John McKean, writing for the excellent Lost Masterpieces (Architecture 3s), remains awe-inspired; ecstatic at the sheer volume, the time, the module, machinery, the transparency, colour, the shimmering ineffability, in short: the future! But by 2012 Douglas Murphy finds only The Architecture of Failure; misdirection, melancholy and architecture disappearing. Straddling logic and poetics, the building that once exuded common sense is now a fairy tale, and we have become overall lachrymose.

‘The behemoth product of Faustian energy, cage and showcase for the strangest oddities in Hyde Park, became an unmanageable cacophony of tawdry reproductions’

Kate Colquhoun originally titled her splendid biography of Paxton A Thing in Disguise referring to the fact that glass is not solid but liquid (hard to grasp, this title was soon changed to The Busiest Man in England). It implies a chimera. Instead of the rigours of mass, proportion or decoration we bring to more tangible building material, glass evokes discussion of its apparent lack of substance. The Victorians didn’t want a fuss about it; right of the main entrance of the 1851 exhibition sat heaps of raw material: ore, coal, even Fuller’s earth (cat litter).

Indeed the palace’s future as an event found Paxton overstretched. The behemoth product of Faustian energy, cage and showcase for the strangest oddities in Hyde Park, became an unmanageable cacophony of tawdry reproductions strewn with aspidistras on Sydenham Hill. What was built up solid in one moment went up in smoke the next; like Christmas or weddings and life itself. Paxton should have drawn a hearty sigh of relief in 1852. But there lies the problem; he couldn’t rest.

A stone’s throw away from the Great Exhibition sat one exhibiting Chinese artefacts. Dickens’ gloated over their stagnation and our advance. Now the roles are reversed and the Chinese wish to resurrect the Crystal Palace. Some of us think that’s a bit like re-creating the 1966 World Cup Final. Whatever, the new incarnation will likely be a bellicose bauble, but Punch once desired Paxton to accommodate Parliament and Penge might just be the place.

Such irony would have been beyond Paxton himself, who was a stout fellow, ‘the quite unaltered gardener’. ‘I should have had that man of yours’ said Wellington to the Duke ‘for one of my generals!’ Paxton was such an organiser of men: Goethe’s developer Faust. Anybody with a flair for engineering can appreciate his energy and his synthesis of manufacturing process, and anybody sensitive to architectural effect mollified by the dramatic results. Good engineering doesn’t anticipate its appearance, so when we pushed on, it’s easy to see how overwrought our high-tech architecture became, and on the other hand how dull those giant sheds.

Architectural History Retold

Architectural History Retold by Paul Davies was published by the Architectural Press in September 2015. Click here to read his interview with Tom Wilkinson

Illustration by Emily Forgot

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