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Paxton, Sir Josephfree


Paxton, Sir Josephfree

  • John Kenworthy-Browne

Sir Joseph Paxton (1803–1865)

by James Henry Lynch (after William Edward Kilburn, 1851)

by permission of the Linnean Society of London

Paxton, Sir Joseph (1803–1865), landscape gardener and architect, was born on 3 August 1803 at Milton Bryan (or Bryant) in Bedfordshire, the youngest of the eight children of William Paxton (1758/9–1810), an agricultural labourer, and his wife, Ann Rooke (1760/61–1823), who is said to have come from Whaddon Chase, Buckinghamshire.

Early years and training

Joseph Paxton attended the free school at Woburn, and is said to have been a garden boy to Sir Hugh Inglis at Milton Bryan Manor. At the age of about fourteen he was placed under his elder brother John, the gardener at Battlesden, the estate of Sir Gregory Page Turner, where his father had also probably worked. He was later apprenticed for two or three years to William Griffin, the gardener to Samuel Smith of Woodhall Park, Watton, Hertfordshire, who was famous for his skill in fruit growing. In 1821 he returned to Battlesden, where he helped construct an ornamental lake of 13 acres, again under the direction of his brother.

In 1823 Paxton's mother died and he went to work at Wimbledon House, Surrey, where the gardener was another brother, probably James Paxton. He was unsettled there and seems to have left for Lee and Henderson's nursery garden in Kensington. On 13 November that year, recommended by Samuel Smith, he was formally admitted by the Horticultural Society of London as a student gardener at the new experimental garden at Chiswick. When giving the required specimen of his handwriting he wrote that he was born in 1801, an untruth which has caused confusion ever since. The following year he was promoted to foreman in charge of the arboretum, covering 33 acres, and his weekly wage was raised from 14 to 18s. In 1826, 'owing to some misunderstanding with the authorities of the Society' Paxton intended to go to America (Journal of Horticulture, 446), but the duke of Devonshire intervened. The sixth duke was the landlord of the society's grounds, and, liking to stroll there and talk to young Paxton, he asked him to be head gardener at Chatsworth, his country house in Derbyshire. The duke is said to have been impressed with Paxton's bearing and general intelligence, but the deciding factor was his good manners: the duke was quite deaf, and Paxton took trouble to speak so that he could hear.

Chatsworth, 1826–1850

Paxton arrived at Chatsworth on 9 May 1826 and started work on a salary of £70 per annum. Returning to his estate after an absence abroad of seven months, the duke noted in his journal: 'my new gardener Paxton has made a great change' (Cavendish, journal, 10 Dec 1826). Although hitherto hardly interested in gardening, the duke became enthusiastic. He visited nursery gardens with Paxton for the latest plants and took him on garden tours in England and Paris. In 1838 the duke became president of the Horticultural Society, and that year, accompanied by Paxton, he set off on a seven-month grand tour of Europe, visiting Switzerland, Italy, and Turkey. By degrees a close friendship arose between duke and gardener. In 1844 Paxton, by now his confidential adviser, found the means to release his employer from an accumulated debt of nearly £1 million by producing a ready buyer, the railway entrepreneur George Hudson, for two Yorkshire estates.

On 20 February 1827 Paxton married Sarah Bown (1800–1871), whose father was a small engineer and mill owner at Matlock, Derbyshire, and whose aunt Sarah Gregory was housekeeper at Chatsworth. They were a devoted couple, Sarah having a strong character and sensible conservative outlook. 'Without a good wife', Paxton remarked many years later at the Punch dinner table, 'a man can't well succeed' (Silver). Six of their eight children survived, but their only son, George, turned out feckless and unpredictable.

Paxton's responsibilities at Chatsworth steadily increased. He was in charge of the woods in 1830 and of the roads in 1837, and by 1849 he was agent for the Chatsworth estate at a salary of £500 per annum. From 1844 he was also agent for the duke's estate at Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, while at other properties, particularly Chiswick House, Middlesex, and Lismore Castle, co. Cork, the duke seldom made any changes without consulting Paxton.

Under Paxton's care, Chatsworth became the most famous garden in England. Largely self-taught, Paxton always encouraged the young gardeners (who included John Gibson, Edward Milner, Edward Kemp, and George Eyles) to study and improve themselves. Among his works at Chatsworth were the pinetum (1829), the arboretum (1834–5, with plants classified according to the system of Jussieu), whose cost was entirely defrayed from the sale of timber cleared off the site, and the orchid collection. He also designed numerous greenhouses and hothouses, using for many of them his own version of the ridge-and-furrow roof. They culminated in the conservatory or great stove (1836–41), a vast glass building with a double-curved framework of laminated wood, measuring 227 by 123 feet and 67 feet high. No glasshouse on this scale had ever been built before, and the cautious duke brought in his architect Decimus Burton as consultant; however, the design and its execution were undoubtedly Paxton's alone. To make the 20 or so miles of moulded sash bar the building required he invented a steam-powered cutting machine, for which in 1840 the Royal Society of Arts awarded him their silver medal. He constructed the rock gardens (from 1843) and designed and built the emperor fountain (1844), so named after Emperor Nicholas I of Russia (who, however, failed to visit Chatsworth), which, with a jet more than 260 feet high, was the tallest in the world. No new task was ever begun without the approval of the duke, with whom in many cases the idea had originated. But when the duke saw the scale of the works necessary for the great stove and the fountain he was quite alarmed.

Paxton's gardening was based on the published works of the Scottish encyclopaedist John Claudius Loudon. In the Gardener's Magazine of July 1831 Loudon published a long criticism of the Chatsworth gardens to which Paxton replied two months later in his own paper, the Horticultural Register, giving Loudon a mild rebuke. But by 1835, their quarrel over, Paxton and the Scot remained close and mutually supportive friends. Paxton made other lasting friendships with the botanists John Lindley and Sir William Hooker. With the help of the latter he arranged plant collecting expeditions: to Mexico (1835), unsuccessfully, and to California (1838), which ended in disaster when a boat party including two young Chatsworth gardeners was drowned on the Columbia River. But in July 1837 his assistant John Gibson returned from Calcutta with many fine new orchids, and the greatly coveted Amherstia nobilis. This much famed temple tree was taken to Chatsworth but failed to flower there. Paxton achieved notable success, however, in 1849, when the duke persuaded Hooker to send a small plant of the Amazon lily Victoria amazonica, which was ailing at Kew. Within three months Paxton had it flowering. It grew so rapidly that the following year he designed for it a new lily house, a rectangular glass lanthorn with horizontal ridge-and-furrow roof. In this simple building was the basic design of the Crystal Palace.

Architecture and private works to 1850

Paxton's first work as architect was the rebuilding, from 1837, of most of the cottages in Edensor village. It seems irregular for the duke to have given this job to his gardener rather than the clerk of works, but evidently Paxton had impressed him with ideas for a model village in the ornamental and ‘historic’ styles illustrated in Loudon's Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture (1833). Paxton in fact obtained designs from Loudon's principal draughtsman, John Robertson, who by 1840 was working full-time in Paxton's office and, besides Edensor, designed many ornamental houses at Chatsworth and elsewhere.

Paxton's private work in the 1840s was in every case undertaken with the duke's permission. In 1838 he assisted John Lindley in a report on the royal gardens. In 1842 he laid out Prince's Park, Liverpool. For Sir William Jackson between 1843 and 1847 he created the much greater Birkenhead Park out of a low-lying swamp, together with designs for five ornamental lodges. In 1845–7 he laid out the cemetery at Coventry, with an Italianate lodge and chapels in the Norman and Greek styles. As landscapes these were all pioneering works that influenced public park design throughout the nineteenth century. When F. L. Olmstead designed Central Park, Manhattan, his principal example was Birkenhead Park. Paxton also received commissions from a number of private patrons, notable among which was Burton Closes, near Bakewell, Derbyshire, a gentleman's villa in early Tudor style, with conservatory, lodge, and grounds, which he built for his stockbroker John Allcard; the interior and decoration, carried out by John Gregory Crace, was partly designed by Pugin. All of the above buildings were designed by Robertson, who some time after 1847 was replaced in Paxton's office by George Henry Stokes (1826–1871), a young architect whose name appears first in connection with the Coventry cemetery.

Although his education had been meagre, Paxton developed remarkable fluency in writing and public speaking. His first essay in publishing was the Horticultural Register, a monthly magazine for practical gardeners, which at first he edited with Joseph Harrison (the gardener at Wortley Hall, near Sheffield). It ran for five volumes (July 1831 through 1836), the format and admittedly much of the content taken from Loudon's Gardener's Magazine. Being considerably cheaper and easier to read than the latter, it took away much of Loudon's readership. Paxton's next monthly magazine, Paxton's Magazine of Botany, ran for sixteen years (1833–48) and was very popular. In both magazines he described many of his plants and innovations at Chatsworth, though, curiously, he never wrote about the great stove. Paxton's Flower Garden, his last magazine, was edited with John Lindley for three years (1850–52). In 1838 he published a little book, The Cultivation of the Dahlia, a work he had actually begun in 1825; it was translated into French and German, with introductions by Jussieu and Alexander von Humboldt, and into Swedish. In 1840 he published The Pocket Botanical Dictionary, which he had compiled with Lindley.

Also in 1840 Paxton, with Lindley, Sir C. W. Dilke (1810–1869), and William Bradbury, founded a weekly newspaper, the Gardener's Chronicle. Paxton's actual part in it was small because the duke expressed a 'great objection to your being connected with a newspaper' (Paxton archive, letter 91). But apparently owing to the considerable success of the Chronicle, the duke made no objection in 1845 when Paxton and Bradbury founded the Daily News, a newspaper intended to be the Liberal rival to The Times. Paxton himself raised £25,000, half of the initial capital. Edited by Charles Dickens, the first issue appeared in 21 January 1846, but it was a disaster. Dickens quit after three weeks and was replaced by Dilke's father (1789–1864); the paper survived, but for many years any profit was small. The staff of Punch magazine (owned by Bradbury and Evans) helped with the opening issues: John Lemon, Douglas Jerrold, and John Leech were among his intimate friends. Paxton, a welcome guest at the legendary Punch dinners, was the only outsider allowed into their jovial, Bohemian circle. It has been said that he supported Punch financially.

From about 1842 Paxton became increasingly rich. This seems likely to have been the result of speculation in railways, in which he had been an early if modest investor. George Stephenson rented Tapton House, Chesterfield, in 1838, when working on the North Midland Railway, and being both a neighbour and a keen gardener he became Paxton's close friend and, through Stephenson, Paxton met George Hudson. At the height of the railway mania of 1845–6 frantic letters between Paxton and Sarah, his wife, were chiefly concerned with share prices. The List of Subscribers to the railways, which was published for 1845 and for 1846, shows Paxton to have subscribed £35,000 and £101,750 respectively. He was a director of certain railway companies, including the Furness Railway, the Midland Railway, and, where he was particularly active, the Matlock Railway, which passed just south of Chatsworth.

The Crystal Palace

Paxton's involvement with Prince Albert's Great Exhibition came about almost by chance. The exhibition was due to open on 1 May 1851, but less than eleven months before that date the building committee had not yet completed their design for the building in Hyde Park. On 7 June 1850 Paxton, in London, happened to tell a friend, John Ellis, that he had an idea for it; the same day Henry Cole at the Board of Trade said that the committee might still consider a new design. Paxton's drawings, which were presented on 21 June, were based on the as yet uncompleted lily house at Chatsworth, but extended in three dimensions: the building was to cover 19 acres, the roofs rising in great steps to provide galleries at two levels. The posts and trusses of this huge greenhouse were to be of iron; the floors, window sashes, and roof structure were of wood. Paxton immediately opened negotiations with the contractors, Messrs Fox and Henderson of Smethwick, and with Chance Brothers, who had supplied glass for the great stove. His design, published in the Illustrated London News on 6 July, was reluctantly approved by the committee on 26 July, partly on its merits but also because the contractors had given the lowest of all the tenders. One of the many advantages of Paxton's design was rapid construction, on account of the use of dry components and the standardization and prefabrication of every part. Yet it was chiefly through Charles Fox's determined efforts that the building was handed over to the exhibitors by 1 February 1851.

Paxton's Crystal Palace (so named by Douglas Jerrold in Punch) instantly turned public hostility towards the exhibition into excited anticipation. The Illustrated London News followed its progress week by week. Paxton's ferro-vitreous building was a novelty both in functional design and in modular construction; aesthetically too it proved to be more interesting than was expected. It won two council prize medals, one for the design and one for the construction. Paxton and Fox were awarded knighthoods, and to Paxton, who in order to lower the tender had waived his fee, Prince Albert gave £5000 out of exhibition profits. But the architectural establishment, vociferous in The Builder, was indignant that a gardener had succeeded where they had failed, and pointed out that in choosing Paxton's late design the commission's action was altogether irregular; that although Paxton was the designer there was no architect, since the technical part, detailed drawings, and execution were left entirely to the contractor; and that the design breached the competition rules, which disallowed galleries and forbade the use of wood and other combustible materials.

Before the close of the exhibition Paxton was campaigning for the retention of the Crystal Palace as a winter garden. The public generally were in favour of keeping it in Hyde Park, but the prince wished the building moved, and on 29 April 1852 parliament voted for that. Immediately the directors of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway floated a company to buy the materials and re-erect the building at Penge Park, near Sydenham, Kent, to be open for the recreation and instruction of the public. Although he was not actually a director of the company, Paxton was indispensable to the whole scheme. Assisted by the contractor John Henderson he redesigned the building, supervised the winter garden, and laid out the terraced garden and park. The initial capital was £500,000, and in anticipation of high dividends the enterprise was heavily oversubscribed. But after two years the estimate was greatly exceeded, partly owing to the expenses of the building but, more culpably, because of Paxton's ambitious water gardens, which were intended to excel those at Versailles. The whole extent was depicted in a panoramic drawing by James Duffield Harding, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1854 (Royal Institute of British Architects, drawings collection, London). The final estimate was £1,300,000. Share prices fell disastrously, but at the turbulent shareholders' meetings it was not Paxton but the directors who were held to blame. The Crystal Palace Company never in fact recovered from his extravagance.

If the Crystal Palace was an investor's nightmare, it was a great success with visitors. Queen Victoria was enchanted and opened the building, with the winter garden, historic courts, and sculpture, on 10 June 1854; the water gardens she opened on 18 June 1856. In order to attract crowds, the gardens were bedded out with high colour, a scheme reviled by William Robinson and others of the ‘natural’ gardening school. But in spite of bankruptcies and other vicissitudes, until the fire of 30 November 1936 Paxton's creation at Sydenham filled the contemporary need for a vast concert hall, exhibition palace, and open-air theatre for every kind of great public show. In 1857, and then triennially from 1859, Handel festivals were held in the central transept.

In 1851 Paxton had expected to lead a ferro-vitreous revolution in building construction, but it did not happen. In 1851 he designed a modestly sized crystal palace for New York, and in 1862 a much larger one with three domed transepts for St Cloud, Paris, intended for the 1865 Paris Exhibition, but neither was built. From 1853 he occupied Rockhills, a Regency house at the north end of the Crystal Palace, which the company gave him free of rent for his lifetime.


Paxton continued his architectural career alongside work at the Crystal Palace, building Mentmore, Buckinghamshire (1850–55), a grand country house in the Elizabethan style of Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, for Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild; and for Baron James de Rothschild the larger Château de Ferrières (1853–9) near Paris, which was generally acknowledged to be the finest of French nineteenth-century châteaux. From 1849 the duke of Devonshire took a renewed interest in his Irish property, Lismore Castle, co. Cork. In 1850 Paxton rebuilt the ruined hall (with decorations by Pugin and Crace) and later the buildings on three sides of the courtyard. Paxton's architectural assistant, G. H. Stokes, married his eldest daughter, Emily, in 1853, and became his architectural partner. They had London premises, and by 1859 had settled at 7 Pall Mall East.

Paxton had many interests, and at the select committee on metropolitan communications in June 1855 he submitted his solution to London's traffic congestion, which was a ‘girdle’, or ring road, to link up the stations City and Parliament, lined on either side by shops, residences, and an atmospheric railway, all covered by an iron and glass roof. This visionary idea, for which a perspective drawing known as The Great Victorian Way survives at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, raised much interest, but the eventual solutions to the traffic problem were the Metropolitan Railway and the Victoria Embankment. During the Crimean War, Paxton organized thousands of the workmen who had finished at the Crystal Palace to go to the Crimea, to be an Army Works Corps and build roads.

A Liberal in politics and a member of the Reform Club since 1847, Paxton was returned unopposed in November 1854 as one of the two members of parliament for Coventry, a seat which he retained until his last illness. In the house he spoke only occasionally, but with effect, particularly in 1860, when he moved for and subsequently chaired the select committee on the Thames Embankment. It was largely owing to Paxton's exertions that the Embankment was built shortly afterwards, combining London's low level sewer, the Metropolitan Railway, and a new thoroughfare.

During Paxton's frequent and long absences business at Chatsworth continued, with Lady Paxton supervising the wages and estate books. After the duke's death in 1858 Paxton had to resign his position at Chatsworth, his place being taken by a cousin of his wife, John Gregory Cottingham. The gardener's house at Chatsworth, which had been enlarged several times, was kept by the Paxtons for their lifetime. With time now to spare, Paxton was increasingly involved with railway contracts, principally with his friends Thomas Brassey and George Wythes. He had interests in railways in Spain, Mauritius, India, and Argentina. In order to survey the Bilbao and Miranda Railway he went with Brassey to Spain in three consecutive autumns (1859–61).

Paxton was a fellow of the Linnean Society (1831); honorary fellow and vice-president of the Horticultural Society; member and vice-president of the Royal Society of Arts; associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers (1851); and a knight of the Russian order of St Vladimir (1845). In stature he was short and he became stout. A flattering engraving after Octavius Oakley, published by Paxton on 1 May 1851, shows him with characteristic long hair, quiff, and whiskers—still a dandy, with white trousers and hat. A marble bust by Edward Wyon (1864, Royal Horticultural Society, London) shows him, though only sixty, to have greatly aged.

Paxton's health had deteriorated because of the difficulties with the Sydenham Crystal Palace. Early in 1863 he collapsed, probably from a heart attack, and he never really recovered. His last professional work was to lay out the park at Dunfermline, Fife, which he and Stokes surveyed in September 1864. He died on 8 June 1865 at Rockhills, where Mr and Mrs Gladstone were among his last visitors. He was buried at Edensor on 15 June and left a personal estate valued at just under £180,000.

Paxton 'rose from the ranks to be the greatest gardener of his time, the founder of a new style of architecture, and a man of genius, who devoted it to objects in the highest and noblest sense popular' (The Times, 9 June 1865). Of his energy and enterprise there is no question. His skill with plants was equalled by a keen eye for the picturesque, which is evident at Edensor village, in the siting of great houses, and in his public parks. He was a natural engineer for whom no task seemed insuperable. His genius was evident while the great stove and the Crystal Palace were yet standing, but his glasshouse technique was short-lived. The ridge-and-furrow roof was virtually obsolete by 1870. The ferro-vitreous building, apart from winter gardens, had few successors until the twentieth century, when many architects found in the 1851 Crystal Palace a model of functional and modular structure. In architecture, again self-taught, Paxton was competent but unexciting, and his achievement depended largely on his relationship with the duke of Devonshire. He relished adulation, but his integrity has never been in doubt. Popular and universally respected, he had a strong gift for friendship, and for long afterwards many people recalled his kindness.


  • G. F. Chadwick, The works of Sir Joseph Paxton, 1803–1865 (1961)
  • V. R. Markham, Paxton and the bachelor duke (1935)
  • W. S. Cavendish, Handbook of Chatsworth and Hardwick (1845)
  • M. Girouard, ‘Genius of Sir Joseph Paxton’, Country Life (9 Dec 1965), 1605–8
  • R. Thorne, ‘Crystal exemplar’, ArchR, 176 (1984), 49–53
  • J. Lees-Milne, The bachelor duke (1991)
  • duchess of Devonshire, The house (1982)
  • B. Elliott, Victorian gardens (1986)
  • H. Conway, People's parks (1991)
  • Y. ffrench, The Great Exhibition (1951)
  • P. Prévost-Marcilhacy, Les Rothschild: bâtisseurs et mécènes (1995)
  • J. Lindley, Gardeners' Chronicle (17 June 1865), 554–5
  • Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener (13 June 1865), 446–9
  • H. Silver, Punch diary, Punch Library, London
  • journal of W. S. Cavendish, sixth duke of Devonshire, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
  • letters, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, Paxton MSS
  • parish register, Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire, 3 Aug 1803 [birth]
  • parish register, Derbyshire, 20 Feb 1827 [marriage]
  • K. Colquhoun, A thing in disguise: the visionary life of Joseph Paxton (2003)


  • Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, archive, incl. corresp.
  • Beds. & Luton ARS, parish records, Milton Bryan, etc.
  • Durham RO, letters to Lord Londonderry's agent
  • ICL, Royal Commission for the International Exhibition of 1851
  • RBG Kew, letters to Sir W. J. Hooker
  • RBG Kew, Lindley corresp.
  • UCL, corresp. with Edwin Chadwick


  • H. P. Briggs, oils, 1836, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
  • T. Ellerby, oils, 1843, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
  • J. Jenkins, stipple, 1851 (after photograph by Kilburn), BM, NPG
  • S. Reynolds, engraving, pubd 1851 (after O. Oakley), BM
  • H. W. Phillips, group portrait, oils, 1853 (The royal commissioners for the Great Exhibition of 1851), V&A
  • E. Wyon, marble bust, 1864, Royal Horticultural Society, London
  • J. G. Crace, photograph, V&A
  • J. H. Lynch, lithograph (after daguerreotype by W. E. Kilburn, 1851), Linn. Soc. [see illus.]
  • O. Oakley, watercolour drawing, NPG
  • photograph, NPG
  • wood-engraving, NPG; repro. in ILN (24 June 1865)

Wealth at Death

under £180,000: probate, 4 Sept 1865, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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