By Tatiana Holway
Two hundred years ago today, on 3 August 1813, Joseph Paxton turned ten. In a farm hand’s family of nine children, this was likely to have been a non-event. A decade after that, the day would also have come and gone like any other. At twenty, Paxton was pretty much on his own, working here and there in some outdoor capacity or other on nearby estates. While considering enrolling as an apprentice at the London Horticultural Society, the opportunity to train for an occupation as a gardener looked quite promising to a young man who otherwise had no prospects. Accepted at Chatsworth as a laborer later in 1823, Paxton was promoted to under-gardener within a couple of years. Then, after a few more months, the Duke of Devonshire proposed that he assume the post of head gardener. What this meant, apart from a fantastical break for Paxton, was that one hundred acres of pleasure grounds of one of the greatest of England’s great estates would come under the charge of a twenty-two-year-old greenhorn. The Duke, who leased land to the Horticultural Society, had happened to notice Paxton and find him agreeable. The officers of the society shrugged.
By the late 1830s, Paxton was the most celebrated gardener in garden-crazed Britain and the foremost glass-house designer in the world. In the 1840s, he also became a railroad tycoon in his own right and a media mogul. In 1850, he built the Crystal Palace, the glass colossus that epitomized one of the greatest original achievements of the Victorian age. In 1854, he rebuilt it on an even bigger scale. On the side, he laid out municipal parks and gardenesque cemeteries, drew up plans for castles, mansions, chateaux, formed the first civil engineering brigade, and hobnobbed with luminaries, dignitaries, and royals. All the while, he remained the Duke’s head gardener, as well as his faithful factotum, ever-ready sidekick, and best of all friends.
How do you account for a man like Paxton? Mid-century photos don’t offer a clue. Bewhiskered and balding, he has intelligent eyes and a pleasant enough face. A respectable middle-aged personage, you might say. A visionary man of action—probably not. He looks pretty staid. He was definitely quite stout. Yet he was more than a mover and shaker; he was a dynamo, a virtuoso, an ace in just about everything he tried, which was just about always something big, bold, and new.
To be sure, Paxton had all the man-power and steam-power he could possibly want when undertaking the herculean endeavors that made Chatsworth’s grounds the most spectacular in the land, its waterworks and rockworks and houses of glass the grandest imaginable, its collections of flora the most luxuriant ever amassed. He also had access to the deep pockets of the lavishly extravagant Duke, who, in addition, was singularly and personally generous to his head gardener, gave him a gentleman’s education in art, architecture, and the ways of the world, took him on grand tours and shopping sprees, and introduced him to the great and the good. That Paxton’s wife preferred to be a homebody certainly helped free up Paxton to go gadding about with the Duke.
Blunt, brisk, and bossy, Sarah made an excellent proxy for her husband when he was gone from the estate (and even when he wasn’t). A shrewd businesswoman, with a keen eye for profit and an aversion to risk, she was also an ideal partner (and occasionally necessary counterweight) in his many and various independent enterprises and ventures (and together the two of them became very rich). In raising their seven children, Sarah was a vigilant matron. In dealing with her husband, she could be curt. But she also fussed over Paxton, whom she called her “Dear Dob” in tender moments (they were private, infrequent).
At any rate, between his employer and his wife, Paxton couldn’t possibly claim to be a self-made man, and never did—though now and then he did report to Sarah that in the circles where he moved he was a “lion.” The boast is pardonable: he was.
It’s often said that Paxton was a “genius.” The term doesn’t elucidate anything much. It does, however, have the advantage of suggesting he belonged in some rarefied realm that’s way above most of our heads. And, after all, even with all the resources at his disposal, there’s still something inexplicable about Paxton. His epic exploits can certainly stretch our credulity now. They sure baffled many a worldly witness then. How did he fashion an ancient-looking rockery from massive boulders and slabs and give it the authentically uncanny feel of a Stonehenge? For his glass houses, constructed from the most modern materials, using the latest efficiencies of industry, fairy tales served as the main reference point. The Great Conservatory at Chatsworth was pronounced to be “magical.” In Hyde Park, the Crystal Palace went up so fast that it seemed as though “Aladdin raised it one night.” “Dazzling the eye,” “bewildering the mind,” it “stunned” the overwhelming majority of visitors. Neither repeated explanations of the rationality of the design nor rote recitations of matters of fact seemed to have done anything to dispel the impression.
Paxton’s resume has a somewhat similar effect. His works can be enumerated and explicated, his many and various enterprises, detailed. Still, cumulatively, his coups are staggering. He stands out as an overachiever amongst towering, overachieving Victorians. No one comparable leaps out from the ranks of phenoms today. And yet it seems quite likely that he’d be at home in the twenty-first century, amongst the outsized cult personalities of our customarily hyperbolically overcharged world. “Fortunate, not fortuitous”: that’s how Paxton described his achievements, absolutely begging the question. On this 210th anniversary of his birthday, it’s about as open-ended as it ever was.
Tatiana Holway is an independent scholar and academic consultant with a doctorate in Victorian literature and society. Author of several studies of Dickens and popular culture, she also serves on the advisory board for the Nineteenth-Century Collections Online global archiving project. Currently, she lives outside of Boston, where she pursues a passion for gardening. Her most recent book is The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, The Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created.