Skip to main content

Joseph Paxton was an inspiring character. He was a humble man but brilliant in his ability to observe, practice and create. Most people recognize him as the creator of the Crystal Palace in London which burnt down in 1936 but he did so much more than this in his lifetime including being involved in politics, journalism and the new railways. He was truly a man in demand. My particular interest is in his work at Chatsworth.

He was born in Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire and started out as a gardener and was soon working in the Horticultural Society gardens. His confidence, brightness and energy were recognised by The Duke of Devonshire who employed him for his house at Chatsworth and the two men worked closely together on the gardens, soon becoming firm friends, an unusual occurrence between these two classes in the early 19th century.

Luckily, the Duke was interested in all things horticulture and Paxton was given free rein to apply his ideas to the gardens, and started designing glasshouses in which to grow exotic plants. His great masterpiece here was The Great Stove, an extraordinarily beautiful and well-crafted glasshouse. At Chatsworth today the foundation stones can still be seen although the glasshouse has been replaced with a maze – but it is a peaceful place to relax on a sunny afternoon and remember how it would have looked 150 years ago.

He also became an expert in moving water, designing the Emperor’s fountain, a single jet of water bursting out of the formal canal to over 260ft tall. It was the highest gravity-fed fountain in the world, with the water coming from man-made lakes on the hill above Chatsworth. I was lucky enough to join a tour of the water features and watched this fountain being set to its full height which is a rarity due to the age of the system.

As you look up the Great Cascade into the woods beyond it, you can see a tall stone column in the distance which stands at 150ft tall. It can be reached by walking past the farm and up into Stand Wood behind the gardens. As you walk up through Stand Wood it still looks like a column with water flowing over the top, but as you reach the base of it, you can see from the side that it is in fact an aqueduct. A very clever visual trick - I was fascinated by it.


If you want to find out more about Joseph Paxton and his work, particularly after a visit to Chatsworth, a delightful book to read is ‘A Thing in Disguise – the Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton’ by Kate Colquhoun.

Return to index