Sir Joseph Paxton: Architect and Gardener

The balustraded stone staircases behind the Spa. 114154
The balustraded stone staircases behind the Spa. 114154

BORN IN Bedfordshire, youngest of the eight children of an agricultural labourer, from an early age Joseph Paxton was apprenticed to a gardener on a local estate. His formal education was minimal. In 1823, when he was admitted as a student to a new experimental garden at Chiswick, he added two years to his age, giving the year of his birth as 1801 instead of 1803.

However, the sixth duke of Devonshire was favourably impressed with Joseph’s polite manners as well as his gardening knowledge and appointed him head gardener at his Chatsworth house in Derbyshire. His starting salary was £90 a year.

From then on duke and gardener gradually became much more than employer and employee; together they travelled to Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Spain, examining and recording landscapes and exotic plants. By 1849 Joseph was receiving £500 a year and looking after other Devonshire estates besides Chatsworth such as Bolton Abbey in Wharfedale.

Thanks to Joseph’s skill and inventiveness, Chatsworth became the most famous and admired garden in England. For it he designed and built a series of original structures, such as an arboretum and a glasshouse, conservatory, and laid out tree plantations and rock gardens. His most spectacular design was the tallest fountain in the world which rose to 260 feet.

At the same time, he was commissioned to plan several new, municipal parks. After Prince’s Park in Liverpool (1842) came Birkenhead Park (1843-7), a model for New York’s Central Park and Coventry cemetery (1845-7). For nearly ten years he was Coventry’s Liberal Member of Parliament.

What was to be known as Paxton’s Crystal Palace, first built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was a much enlarged version of the greenhouse he had designed at Chatsworth. The greenhouse or lily house was 300 feet long; the Crystal Palace 1,800 feet long. Yet both were pioneer structures of iron, wood and glass, the latter covering 19 acres.

What made the Crystal Palace unique was that all of its parts, iron posts and trusses, wooden roof, floors and window sashes and glass panels, were all factory-made and assembled on site. Paxton had pioneered prefabrication. He waived his fee and accepted a knighthood instead.

Later, when Paxton’s pavilion was removed to Sydenham and enlarged, he re-designed it, supervised the winter garden inside it and laid out the park attached to it. Until it was destroyed by fire in 1936, the Crystal Palace served as concert hall, open-air theatre and exhibition room.

It was unsurprising, therefore, that in 1856, when Scarborough’s Cliff Bridge Company decided to improve and extend their Spa buildings and gardens, they should have commissioned Sir Joseph Paxton. Not only was he a frequent holiday-maker to the town but by then the most celebrated architect and landscape gardener in Europe.

Wyatt’s Gothic Saloon, opened as recently as 1839, had long been considered too small for purpose. Now that here there were musical concerts, dances and even refreshments provided (though only lemonade, ginger beer and soda water), to the original “castle” in 1845 there had been added a saloon, a ladies’ room, a newsroom and an entrance hall.

But the Company shareholders were still not satisfied and looked enviously at the recent success of the nearby Crown Hotel. Secondly, they wanted to extend the promenade on both seafront sides and to landscape the gardens under the cliff and behind the Spa buildings. So as both gardener and architect, Paxton was their perfect choice.

Paxton suggested that the promenade should be extended southwards and a new music hall built behind it and beyond that a permanent, circular covered bandstand or “orchestra” and a three-storey observation tower. Wyatt’s saloon should be retained as a refreshment room, but lose its turrets. The new hall could be constructed of stone from Staintondale brought to the site on barges towed by steam boats.

As for the Spa grounds, Paxton drew up plans for balustraded stone staircases and flower beds on the steep slope behind his new music hall. The gardener’s wages were raised from 16 shillings (80p) to 21 shillings (£1.05p) a week.

Paxton’s estimate of the total cost of less than £30,000 was accepted and the building work finished the following year in time for the 1858 season. Simultaneously, the local builders, John Barry senior and son, had designed and constructed both a carriage road and new sea wall from the south end of the Spa footbridge, also of Staintondale stone, as Paxton had recommended.

Paxton’s plans and Barry’s building together created a new Spa assembly which proved highly profitable to the Cliff Bridge Company its owners. From the summer of 1858 until the fire of 1876 destroyed Paxton’s music hall, shareholders drew annual dividends averaging seven per cent. By 1871, 100,000 tickets were being sold in a season and at the height of the summer as many as 4,000 visited the Spa grounds in a day. No doubt the royal presence of Edward, Prince of Wales, three years running from 1869 until 1871, added to the number and the takings.

Scarborough’s debt to Paxton was much more than his music hall and gardens: in 1862 the Town Hall asked him to plan the development of the empty land below Oliver’s Mount which became known as the Weaponness estate. Though Sir Joseph did not live long enough to see his plans materialise, the lay-out of the building plots between Trinity and Ramshill Roads followed his outline suggestions.

Sir Joseph Paxton had risen from the most humble origins to become the greatest landscape gardener of his time and founder of a new style of architecture. He was a natural engineer and a true inventive genius. Moreover, in the words of The Times obituary, he was universally admired with a special gift for making and keeping friends. At his death in June 1865, he left a personal estate of £180,000.