Sir Joseph Paxton was one of the pre-eminent landscape gardeners and architects of the Victorian age, although his name is remembered today in great part because of his role in creating one of the most famous buildings of the era – London’s Crystal Palace.

Joseph Paxton ILNThe palace opened 165 years ago this year – it was built for the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. But before we get to that, we have to go back a few years to the origins of its designer.

Paxton was born to a large Bedfordshire farming family on 3rd August, 1803 (although the year has been a matter of dispute at times, apparently because, wanting to appear older than he was, early on in his career he claimed that he had been born in 1801).

He attended school locally before venturing into the gardening profession (a number of other family members were already involved in gardening), taking on a number of gardening-related jobs before his first break came in 1823 when he was admitted by the Horticultural Society of London to work as a student gardener in the experimental gardens of Chiswick House in London’s west – then leased by the society from the Duke of Devonshire.

His work was soon noticed and, in 1826, the duke, with whom Paxton would come to have a close friendship, was apparently so enamoured that he appointed him to the position of head gardener at Chatsworth House, his family pile in Derbyshire.

It was something of a dream job for the then still young Paxton, who, over the ensuing years would be responsible for designing gardens as well as fountains (including the Emperor Fountain, named after Emperor Nicholas I of Russia), an arboretum, a model village, a conservatory of unprecedented size – known as the Great Conservatory, and a lily house, the latter featuring a design based on the leaves of the giant Victoria amazonica water lily.

Paxton’s ties to Chatsworth were strengthened further when he married the niece of Chatsworth’s housekeeper, Sarah Bown, in 1827. They would have eight children, six of whom survived.

Chatsworth became the most famous garden in England under Paxton’s watch but for many, it is his instrumental role in the Great Exhibition pavilion which stands out as his greatest achievement.

His involvement was really that of an opportunist – all of the original 245 plans for the main exhibition hall had been rejected when Paxton, on hearing of this while in London on business with regard for his role as a director of the Midland Railway, delivered his own design.

Inspired very much by the lily house he had designed (and which had yet to be completed) at Chatsworth, the design was innovative for a number of reasons, including its modular and prefabricated nature and the copious amounts of glass it used (only possible due to recent technological developments concerning the use of iron and glass).

Following its acceptance (this despite the fact it apparently breached the design competition’s rules), it took some 2,000 men eight months to build the 500 metre long building which, despite some criticism, was such a success at the Great Exhibition that in October of 1851 – some five months after its opening – Paxton was knighted by Queen Victoria. (For more on the Crystal Palace, see our earlier entry here).

Following the Great Exhibition, the building, with Paxton’s aid, was relocated to Sydenham in south London after the exhibition where it remained until it burned down in 1936.

Paxton, meanwhile, returned to his post as head gardener at Chatsworth (a role he fulfilled until 1858), but he is also credited with numerous other projects including the design of public parks in places as far afield as Liverpool and Glasgow, and the design of the London Road Cemetery in Coventry.

He was also involved in the commission charged with improving the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and designed numerous residences, the most famous being Mentmore Towers which he designed for Baron Mayer de Rothschild (among his other contributions to the world of design was a plan for an ‘atmospheric railway in London’ which was never built – for more on that, see our previous post here).

Paxton, who also acted as a Liberal MP for Coventry for the last 11 years of his life and was for many years involving in publishing various gardening-related magazines, general newspapers and writing a couple of books, became wealthy by speculating on the growing railway industry.

He died on 8th June, 1865, at his home, Rockhills, in Sydenham and was buried in St Peter’s Churchyard at Edensor on the Chatsworth Estate. His wife Sarah continued to live at Chatsworth until her death in 1871.

PICTURE: Via Wikimedia Commons.

• It’s another weekend of celebration in London with events including Trooping the Colour and the Hampton Court Palace Festival taking place. With Diamond Jubilee fever in the air, expect crowds for this year’s Trooping the Color – the annual celebration of the Queen’s birthday – held at Horse Guards Parade on Saturday. The procession down The Mall kicks off at 10am  with the flypast back at Buckingham Palace at 1pm (organisers advice getting your place by 9am – for more, follow this link). The Hampton Court Palace Festival, meanwhile, kicks off today with a performance by Liza Minnelli and runs through next week until John Barrowman performs at the festival’s closing next Saturday (24th June). The festival, set against the backdrop of Hampton Court Palace, this year celebrates its 20th year – among other performers are Van Morrison, James Morrison, Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons and this Saturday (16th June) sees the holding of the 20th Anniversary Classical Gala and fireworks. For more, see http://hamptoncourtpalacefestival.com/. PICTURE: Trooping the Colour 2011.

• Park Lane’s central reservation is now hosting three new large scale sculptures by artist William Turnbull, considered a pioneer of modernism. The three works – 3×1 (1966), Large Horse (1990) and Large Blade Venus (1990) – have been installed as part of Westminster City Council’s ‘City of Sculpture’ festival. The works are on loan from the artist as well as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Chatsworth House, where they have been recently displayed.

• Professor Keith Simpson, a pathologist who has conducted post-mortems as part of the investigation into some of the country’s most infamous murders, has been honored with a green plaque at his former residence at 1 Weymouth Street by Wesminster City Council. The cases he worked on include the 1949 Acid Bath Murders (John George Haigh was hanged for the murder of six people in August that year) and the murder of gangster George Cornell, shot dead by Ronnie Kray in Whitechapel’s Blind Beggar Pub in 1966. Professor Simpson, who died in 1985, worked in the field of pathology for more than 30 years, taught at Guy’s Hospital in London and was renowned as having performed more autopsies than anyone else in the world.

• Now On: Londoners at Play. This exhibition at the Getty Images Gallery in Eastcastle Street explores through images how Londoners spent their leisure time – from the 19th century through to today. The display features 57 images including an image of ‘Last Night of the Proms’ from 1956 featuring conductor Sir Malcolm Sergeant, a print taken from a glass plate negative showing Londoners cycling in Royal Parks in 1895 and a crowd watching a Punch and Judy show in Covent Garden in 1900. Admission is free. Runs until 25th August. For more, see www.gettyimagesgallery.com/Exhibitions/Default.aspx.

• Now On: Gold: Power and Allure – 4,500 Years of Gold Treasures from across Britain. This exhibition at the Goldsmith’s Hall showcases more than 400 gold items, dating from 2,500 BC through to today. Admission is free. Runs until 28th July. For more information, see www.thegoldsmiths.co.uk.

Opened to the public last week, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination – a landmark exhibition at the British Library – features a “treasure trove” of illuminated manuscripts collected by the kings and queens of England between the 9th and 16th century. Highlights include 16 illuminated manuscripts of King Edward IV, what the library calls the first “coherent collection” of royal books; the Psalter of King Henry VIII, A History of England by Matthew Paris, a 13th century monk, scholar and advisor to King Henry III; Thomas Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes – a early 15th century instruction book on how to be an effective ruler; a 14th century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings; and, The Shrewsbury Book, created in Rouen in 1445 and presented to Margaret of Anjou on her marriage to King Henry VI by the renowned military commander John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. An impressive series of public events featuring well known writers and historians – including Eamon Duffy, Michael Wood, and Andrew Marr –  is taking place alongside the exhibition. Runs until 13th March. An admission charge applies. For more, see www.bl.uk.

PICTURE: The Coronation of Henry III, Images of English Kings, from Edward the Confessor to Edward I, England, c. 1280-1300, Cotton Vitellius, A. xiii, f. 6 © British Library Board

• Leading 18th century landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has been honored with a blue plaque at his former home in Hampton Court Palace. Brown, who designed more than 120 landscapes during his lifetime, lived at Wilderness House after King George III appointed him Chief Gardener at the palace – he lived there from 1764 until his death in 1783. Brown’s legacy can still be seen at country houses around England – including at Petworth House in West Sussex, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. He had earned the name ‘Capability’ by the 1760s – apparently he often spoke of a property’s capabilities when speaking of it. English Heritage unveiled the plaque last week. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.

A second blue plaque worth mentioning this week is that marking the former home of actor Richard Burton. Michael Sheen – currently playing Hamlet at the Young Vic – was among those who last week attended the unveiling on the plaque at the home Burton and his wife actress Sybil Williams lived in from 1949 to 1956, the period during which he rose to international fame. While living at the house 6 Lyndhurst Road in Hampstead, Burton was a member of the Old Vic theatre company – performing, to the acclaim of critics, roles including that of Hamlet, Othello, Coriolanus and Henry V – and in 1952 made his Hollywood debut with My Cousin Rachel. Other films he appeared in during the period include The Robe (1953), The Desert Rats (1953), and Alexander the Great (1956). Following the close of the Old Vic season in 1956, Burton moved to Switzerland and went on to even greater public fame following his role in the 1963 film Cleopatra alongside his then lover (and later wife) Elizabeth Taylor. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.

• On Now: Grayson Perry – The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. This exhibition at the British Museum explores a range of themes connected with the ideas of craftsmanship and sacred journeys and includes 190 objects from the museum’s collection selected by the artist along with a works by Grayson himself, many of which will be on public view for the first time. They include everything from Polynesian fetishes to Buddhist votive offerings, a prehistoric hand axe to 20th century badges and a re-engraved coin from 1882 featuring a bust of Queen Victoria with a beard and boating hat. At the heart of the exhibition sits Grayson’s own work, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a richly decorated cast-iron “coffin-ship”. Runs until 19th February. An admission charge applies. For more, visit www.britishmuseum.org.