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Obituary of Sir Joseph Paxton

Sir Joseph Paxton medallion 1854
Sir Joseph Paxton medallion 1854

The following obituary appeared on Sir Joseph Paxton’s death at Rock Hills, Sydenham [Kent], on 8th June 1865, aged 61 [CRT180/89].

The deceased was born at Milton Bryant, near Woburn. Bedfordshire, August 3rd 1803, and educated at Woburn Free School. A younger son of parents in very moderate circumstances, he was obliged at an early age to seek means of supporting himself. Having become a skilful gardener, he obtained employment at Chiswick, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire. There he had the good fortune to attract the notice of the Duke, who, in 1826, removed him to Chatsworth, and gave him a situation of increased responsibility; and eventually he was made not only director of the magnificent gardens and grounds at Chatsworth, but manager of the Duke’s vast Derbyshire estates. At Chatsworth he had the superintendence of the extensive works which changed that already famous seat and grounds into the most splendid ducal residence in England. The gardens and grounds were entirely remodelled from the designs of Mr. Paxton, and while in a horticultural point of view they were considered to have been raised to the foremost place among English gardens, as regards elegance of design they have met with general admiration, though in this latter respect much has always been supposed to be due to the fine taste of the Duke himself. One great feature of the work, the grand conservatory, however, was known to be entirely the production of Mr. Paxton. This erection, in size beyond anything then existing being 300 feet long by 145 feet wide [!] and covering nearly an acre of ground, was not merely an expansion of an ordinary conservatory. With perfect simplicity it combined much beauty of form, and it was constructed on a foundation of the greatest solidity; it has an underground railway for the use of the gardeners and workmen, an elaborate and successful system of heating and ventilation, and an ingenious ridge-and-furrow arrangement of the glass for the double purpose of increasing its power of resisting hail-storms and facilitating the rapid passage of rain water – contrivances since common enough in gigantic glass and iron buildings, but then novel. It may be added as an illustration of the mechanical ingenuity of Mr. Paxton that the forty miles of sash-bar required for the conservatory were made be a machine of his own invention. This remarkable edifice was in fact the parent of the far more famous Crystal Palace.

During the many years he was engaged in carrying out these works, the buildings at Edensor, and other extensive operations connected with the estates of the Duke of Devonshire, Mr. Paxton was of course brought into close professional and friendly intercourse with eminent artists, architects, engineers and manufacturers; and a high estimate of his constructive talents and business skill became widely spread, which the unbounded confidence in his integrity and warm admiration of his ability, which the Duke of Devonshire took every opportunity of expressing, did no little to extend and strengthen. There was a general readiness, therefore, when the Building Committee of the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851 had brought everything connected with the building into a state of uncertainty, to listen with respect to the entirely original plan which Mr. Paxton put forward; and the more his design was examined the more evident it became that he had formed a clear conception of what was really required, and of the best means of supplying it. His design, as is well know, was, with very slight modifications, carried out under his superintendence. With the general public the building was from the first a favourite, and it gained rather than otherwise by familiarity. As a recognition of his merit, Mr. Paxton received the honour of a knighthood; and when the Crystal Palace Company was formed he was invited to prepare a revised design for the building on its new site at Sydenham, and was appointed director of the garden, park &c. He availed himself of the opportunity to remodel the plan and adapt it to the new style he may be said to have created. In this building Sir Joseph Paxton had carried out probably to the fullest extent the ideal he had been led to imagine in the course of his Chatsworth experience in building; and in the grounds and gardens may in like manner be traced the influence of his Chatsworth studies. Costly and beautiful as are the Chatsworth gardens and terraces, the fountains and waterworks, they have but served as models for the nobler gardens, terraces and fountains of the Crystal Palace, and whatever objections may be raised to particular points of detail, it must be regarded as no small triumph to have designed and carried out works so various, so vast and so beautiful.

After the completion of the Crystal Palace, Sir Joseph Paxton appeared inclined to pursue the profession of an architect, but the only work of any consequence that he erected, is the mansion of a very costly and fanciful design at Ferrières in France, for the Baron James de Rothschild; he also made extensive alterations to the seat of Baron M. A. de Rothschild , Mentmore, Buckinghamshire [also the new Battlesden House of 1864]. He also devised a remarkable plan for girdling London with a magnificent arcade, resembling the transept of the old Crystal Palace, in which were to be included lines of railway worked on the atmospheric principle, and bordered by handsome dwellings and shops, which Sir Joseph laid, in 1855, in full detail before a committee of the House of Commons for considering means of improving communications &c. in London. But besides this railway in the air, Sir Joseph has been a good deal connected with more substantial and matter-of-fact lines, and of late with other large commercial undertakings. His versatile ability was well shewn in the suggestion, and subsequently in the organisation, of the Army Works Corps, which served in the Crimea.

In 1827 Mr. Paxton married Sarah, the daughter of Mr. Thomas Bown. In 1854 he was elected, without opposition, M. P. for Coventry, and continued to represent that borough until his decease. He was elected Fellow of the Horticultural Society in 1826, and of the Linnaean Society in 1833; and in 1844 he was created a knight of the Order of Saint Vladimir by the Emperor of Russia. Sir Joseph contributed somewhat extensively to the literature of horticulture. Among other things he wrote a “Practical Treatise on the Culture of the Dahlia” 1838; and a “Cottage Calendar”, which has had an enormous circulation; he also edited wholly or in part “Paxton’s Flower Garden”, “Pocket Botanical Dictionary”, “Horticultural Register” and “Botanical Magazine”.