Sir Joseph Paxton

Designer of the Crystal Palace

Joseph Paxton was born in Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire on August 3rd 1803. Despite being the seventh son born to a farming family, Joseph chose a different path and became a garden boy when he was fifteen, tending the gardens of Battlesden Park. It did not take long for his skills to become noted and he soon found himself on the path to a long a rewarding career in horticulture and design that would earn him accolades, respect and even a knighthood.

Taken by Kevin Hawksworth.

Taken by Kevin Hawksworth

Joseph’s early life and family played an important role in his work.

When Joseph moved to the Chatsworth Estate as a young man he became acquainted with a slightly older women called Sarah Brown who was the niece of the house’s housekeeper. In 1827 the pair married and they would go on to have a long and happy live together, bearing eight children but sadly only raising seven as one of their sons died at a young age. One of Paxton’s daughters, Annie, can be credited with helping to inspire her father because his fascination with the structure of lily-pads was enhanced when he floated his young child upon one and it was this discovery that lead to the design of one of his greatest buildings. Paxton’s devotion to his field never waned during his time as a father and husband and it was the support of his wife that helped his pursue his career.

The many horticultural achievements of Sir Joseph Paxton.

Gardening was not just a boyhood occupation for Paxton; it was a skill that clear to future employers and a passion that would last his entire life. At just 20 years of age, Joseph was appointed as Head Gardener at Chatsworth after impressing people during his time at the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Gardens. This was a high honour for someone so young but Paxton quickly proved his worth and showed some impressive skill and imagination with his projects. The most ambitious of these was the Emperor Fountain, a colossal structure that was double the height of Nelson’s Column. With this project it was not a simple case of building a fountain, they also had to remove 100,000 cubic yards of soil to create a lake for it to function and rebuild parts of the village of Edensor.

The Gigantic Waterlily (Victoria Regia), In Flower At Chatsworth

In addition to his development of the gardens in Chatsworth, where he remained Head Gardener until 1858, Paxton enjoyed success with a number of other horticultural ventures and positions. During his lifetime he give advice on public parks in major cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow, he was appointed as a member of the Kew Commission so that use his expertise to improve the Royal Botanic Gardens and at one point he was even considered for role of Windsor Castle’s Head Gardener. Add to this the numerous magazines and publications he wrote between 1831 and 1850 and his plant-hunting trips and he had an impressive resume – even if two members of a trip to California did not make it back alive.


Sir Joseph Paxton’s infamous designs and buildings.

While Paxton was clearly a gardener by trade, and would remain so for the majority of his life, it was his building projects and extraordinary glasshouses that made him famous across the country. His pioneering work into the structure and potential of these houses led to some impressive creations that laid the foundations for greenhouses as we know them today. His first work of art came in 1837 when he created the Great Conservatory in Chatsworth after being inspired by the leaves of the waterlily. This 227ft long structure became the largest glass building in the world, so large in fact that the Queen was driven through it in a carriage on her royal visit. This was followed by the 331ft long Conservative Wall in 1848 and then, in 1851, Paxton designed what is still considered to be his masterpiece – The Crystal Palace. This hall caused some controversy when it housed the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park but the innovation earned Paxton a knighthood, which he received from Queen Victoria that same year.

Sir Joseph Paxton

Sir Joseph Paxton’s move into politics.

As Sir Joseph Paxton grew in popularity and reputation he decided upon an unusual career move for someone who retained their Head Gardener position – he became Coventry’s Liberal Member of Parliament. Unlike some public figures, Paxton took his position very seriously, campaigning on a wide range of local and national issues and taking the time to personally visit every voter in his constituency during a by-election. He remained their representative from 1854 until1865 and his most memorable proposal during this time was for the Great Victorian Way, an arcade that was based on Crystal Palace and would create a 10 mile circuit of roads, houses shops and an atmospheric railway around the centre of London.

Death and legacy.

Joseph Paxton remained loyal to his constituents of Coventry for as long as he physically able but was forced to retire due to ill health after eleven years in 1865. Soon after, on June 8th of the same year, Paxton died in Sydenham and his body was taken back to Edensor, the village at Chatsworth that had played such an important role in his imaginative projects and made him the renowned designer the country admired. A few years later, on September 12th 1871, his wife also died and was buried by his side on the estate.

With many of our great designers and architects, their legacy is plain to see for generations to come through the continued use of their buildings and structures. Sadly, in the case of Joseph Paxton there is little physical evidence of his work remaining; the Great Conservatory building and its inhabitants were neglected during WWI and demolished in 1920, the Great Victorian Way was never accomplished and all that remains of the Crystal Palace is a sketch in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the building having been lost to fire in 1936. All is not lost however because Paxton’s influence can be seen in other ways from the renamed area of London where the Palace was rehoused to the modern greenhouse.