by Kate Colquhoun

Publisher:  Fourth Estate (2003)
ISBN  0  0071 4353 2



I must confess to having had a long standing interest in the Crystal Palace ever since I was taken, as a small girl, to the nearest hill from which we could see it burning 30 miles away. The first chapter of this book describes that devastating event in great detail.  The Crystal Palace is, of course, the main thing for which Paxton is remembered and its success, together with that of the housing of the Great Exhibition of 1851, made his reputation.

Paxton was born in 1803, youngest son of a poor farmer in Bedfordshire. He was introduced to gardening at the age of 15 and soon progressed to the gardens at Woburn House.  Later he worked as a labourer in the grounds of the Horticultural Society in Chiswick, where he learned about the cultivation of newly imported exotic species, as well as the management of hothouses, and was able to benefit from the excellent library.

At the age of 23, he was offered the job that was to allow the flowering of his career – superintendent of the gardens at Chatsworth. However, when he arrived he found that ‘there were no plants of introduction later than 1800; eight rhododendrons and not one camellia’.  Within 10 years the gardens at Chatsworth were probably the finest in England.  Paxton was known for his engineering skills, not only for the magnificent ridge-and-furrow glasshouses but also for the great cascades built at Chatsworth.

Paxton was much more than a gardener: he founded a newspaper (The Daily News) as well as many horticultural journals, including the respected Gardeners Chronicle. He was a friend of Brunel, involved in the expansion of the railway system, and influential in planning the Thames embankment. He was a complex character and this entertaining book describes in a lively manner the developments of his interests and skills. Much of the material is new and has been obtained from a collection of personal letters.

Alison A Newton