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Kate Colquhoun has written a biography of Joseph Paxton that has much of value for anyone interested in the history of gardening, the Great Exhibition of 1851, Victorian architecture, nineteenth-century technology, and a life straight out of Samuel Smiles or Horatio Alger. Paxton begins his working life as a laborer (not yet even a gardener) and ends as a titled architect, landscape designer, editor, investor, and of course designer of the building for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Paxton is usually described in histories of the Crystal Palace or discussions of iron in architecture as "the Duke of Devonshire's gardner," and in a sense he was, since that description literally holds true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far. Its truth is on the order of, say, describing Michelangelo as ceiling painter, or, turning to Paxton's own century, describing Disraeli as novelist, Arnold as school inspector, or Ruskin as someone who wrote a popular children's book. True, but as Colquhoun enthusiastically demonstrates, very misleading.

This handsome book, which Carl W. Scarbrough has beautifully designed, begins with what an editor I know calls a "grabber," in this case a narrative of the fiery destruction of the Crystal Palace in 1936, and it then proceeds more calmly but enthusiastically to place its subject in the context of early botanical study and the rise of gardening among the wealthy. As James Endersby has pointed out, "Botany was among the most popular of the nineteenth-century sciences. Men, women and children all joined in the frantic hunt for plants, and the hedgerows were full of people cataloguing mosses, identifying ferns and pressing flowers" ("Victorian Botany: An Introduction"). According to Endersby, the great popularity of botany in the Victorian years arose from several factors, among them that it was easy to do, inexpensive, healthy, pious, and, of course, genteel and ladylike. Before botany could achieve such popularity, however, what Colquhoun describes as a "Horticultural Revolution" fundamentally related to British exploration and colonization had to occur. Such explorers as Cook, colonists, and, finally, plant collecting expeditions enormously increased the variety of vegetation on English shores, so that, according to Colquhoun, "between 1731 and 1789 the number of plants in cultivation increased over fivefold to around five thousand" (10). The apricot, tulip tree, magnolia, and Chinese and American lilies began to grow in English soil, and the rage for landscape gardens begun by Lancelot "Capability" Brown in the mid-eighteenth century continued with Humphry Repton's introduction of the romantic garden. Collecting plants and creating environments in which they could flourish became an avocation of the very wealthy and a means by which to compete for prestige — much as buying large estates had always been and as owning the largest, most luxurious yacht or private jet has become in our own age.

Paxton's Rise

It may have been Paxton's good fortune to obtain work as a laborer in the Horticultural Society's gardens rather than, say, on a construction project, but only hard work and exceptional ability can account for his rapid rise to fame. Let Colquhoun tell the story:

On 13 November 1823, Paxton entered the Horticultural Society's gardens as a laborer. . . . With the library at his disposal he set about a rigorous regime of self-education. . . . Within six months he has moved to a position as a labourer under the management of Mr. Donald Monroe, the ornamental gardener, who was in charge of the new plants. That year the apidistra was introduced from China, the fuchsia from Mexico, and the verbena, petunia, and salvia from South America. . . . A year after joining the society Paxton was given the opportunity to apply for promotion as an undergardener in the arboretum. . . . In 1826 . . . . Paxton was offered the position of superintendent of the gardens at Chatsworth — that is to say, head gardener at one of the grandest estates in England and for one of the richest aristocrats in the land, the sixth Duke of Devonshire. [18-23]

The "immensely rich" duke, who had two-hundred thousand acres of land, three great country estates, an equal number of London mansions, and an income of �70,000, apparently encountered Paxton in the garden at Chiswick House and was impressed enough to hire a young man who had just reached his twenty-third birthday, thereby beginning what Colquhoun accurately terms "an unlikely but astonishingly fruitful pairing" (24). Paxton, who obviously continued to impress the duke, fairly quickly became the confidant of "the particularly restless duke" (101), eventually handling the accounts for Chatsworth (152), negotiating the arrangements for the Duke's life insurance, and otherwise assuming involvement with his employer's finances. Equally important, the duke increasingly regarded him as an intimate friend, often demanding that Paxton accompany him on trips and always engaging in a detailed correspondence with him. Once when Paxton became ill, the duke, a fanatic collector of plants, wrote, "I would rather all the plants were dead than have you ill" (58), and the duke's sister, Harriet, Countess Grandville, suggested that he had refused the offer of several important positions in government because he so desired Paxton's company and the opportunity to pursue their joint projects. The Duke built an impressive home for Paxton and his family (106), repeatedly raised his salary, and, perhaps surprisingly, tried to advance his friend's career even when it meant taking him away from Chatsworth.

Of course, the duke, who reminds one of Trollope's Duke of Omnium in the Palliser series, was one of the wealthiest men in England, he belonged to vastly higher economic and social class, and he was Paxton's employer. Which means the friendship that had such great advantages for Paxton came with a price, for, as his biographer puts it, "The Duke would always win the war for Paxton's attention. Paxton adored his wife and small children, but . . ." (87; ellipsis added). Colquhoun convincingly portrays this complex relationship of two men who shared the same obsessions, and one might add that they had a particularly un-Victorian relationship: Victorian novels and life are filled with faithful retainers and masters both of whom know their precise positions in a hierarchical society. This relationship differed, at one of Colquhoun's anecdotes reveals. When the duke gave a grand ball as Lisemore, one of his country estates, Paxton, knowing his place, went to eat with the servants and other employees. "As Paxton was laying his own supper below stairs, the Duke came down to ask why he was not dressed to join them and urged him to do so quickly. When the Duke came to look for him again, Paxton was ready. Taking him by the arm, the Duke led him into the center of the company and introduced him to the leading gentry. If his guests felt that the gardener's conspicuousness was slightly eccentric, they did not show it" (27). Of course not — the duke was, after all, by far the richest and most powerful landowner in their county. Still, it was eccentric for any host to introduce to the gentry as their equal someone who had begun as a laborer, and one has the impression that the duke was doing his best to elevate Paxton's social position not only by displaying his regard for him but also by accustoming him to feel comfortable with the rich and powerful. And his gardener did end up as Sir Joseph Paxton!

Paxton, who seems to have been a person who fit in comfortably wherever he was, was either an uncommonly pleasant person or a brilliantly diplomatic one. Perhaps both. He had an amazing ability to retain the friendship of his rivals — people ranging from members of the duke's staff to famous engineers. The Busiest Man in England relates a lovely story how Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Stephenson, two of the century's greatest engineers and innovators, supported Paxton's plans for what became known as the Crystal Palace rather than fight for their own proposals.

Paxton, Iron, and Glass

When asked how he came to the technological innovations he employed in the great glass palace that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, Paxton always emphasized the years of experimentation that preceded its construction. When he arrived at Chatsworth, Paxton discovered that

the various forcing houses at Chatsworth were made from coarse, thick glass and heavy woodwork, which rendered the roofs dark, gloomy, and ill suited for the purpose for which they were built. So he beveled off the sides of the rafters and sash bars, lightening them considerably and discovering that the buildings lost no structural stability in the process. Frustrated by putty that failed to withstand the extremes of sun, rain, and frost and that disintegrated and allowed water to drip constantly inside the houses in rainy weather, he also contrived a new, lighter sash bar with a groove to hold the glass, obviating the need for putty altogether. [33]

Interestingly, as this example shows, Paxton at first preferred wooden to iron construction. Later, following the pioneering efforts of J. C. Loudon, who had devised "the principle of fixing glass at angles on a 'ridge and furrow' construction. It now occurred to Paxton that his wooden roofs would admit much more light if the sashes were so fixed. It was an insight that proved to be one of the most important mental leaps of his career" (48). Paxton had in fact found a way for light to enter the greenhouse early and late in the day when the sun was low but also to reflect much of the light when the sun was high and could overheat the building, harming plants. Having succeeded with small buildings, he used the same principles of design and construction for an orchid house almost 100 feet long. Colquhoun explains the value of this early experience, pointing out how he avoided the disasters encountered by others:

During the five years from 1830, Paxton spent the considerable amount of �3,409 on maintaining and constructing greenhouses, mushroom houses, forcing houses, a strawberry house, a large pine house, a melon and cucumber house, several vine ranges, and a peach house — all of glass, wood, and iron. He was not working in isolation but within a contemporary fashion for experimentation with the design and structure of glass buildings, often on a massive scale. . . . Demonstrating just how hard these types of building were to erect, the "Antheum" in Hove, with its sixty-foot-high dome spanning 170 feet, swerved into famously serpentine lines when its scaffolding was removed and collapsed within a month. Paxton's experiments, though, were impelled not by the aesthetics of design, or the desire to further his own reputation but by the needs of utility, stability, convenience, economy, and the desire to overcome technological limitations within the constraints imposed by the glass tax. They succeeded in their aims entirely. [49]

His next important project was the so-called Great Stove (1836-40) at Chatsworth, a climate-controlled, 227-foot long structure with curved glass surfaces that housed tropical vegetation. A few years later he designed a characteristically complex — and expensive — six-acre rockery that drew upon his experience of the Alps. "The grandest of all the single rocks, named after the Duke of Wellington, was forty-five feet high, with a waterfall coursing over its face" (107). Recalling how many architects and designers have failed to secure funding for their works, which therefore forever exist only on paper, one marvels, once again, on Paxton's relationship with an enormously wealthy man who shared the his goals and delighted in his projects, even those like his next great one — a seminal design for Prince's Park in a suburb of Liverpool — that took him away from Chatsworth and his other estates. Reading the history of Paxton's works in The Busiest Man in England, one receives the impression that the duke was so proud of his friend and employee that he believed he received reflected glory from his successes, none more than the building that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. Understandably, a considerable proportion of the book concerns Paxton's most famous project, of which Colquhoun gives a good account.

Some Remarks from the Reviewer

The Busiest Man in England, as I have already suggested, does a fine job of telling Paxton's story and providing much of the context necessary to appreciate it. Biographers tend either to take a critical stance toward their subjects, sometimes even to the point of hostility, or else, like Colquhoun, openly admiration of them. She is clearly a fan, and that's fine, since biographers who admire their subjects, as she so obviously does, often create works that make pleasant reading. The Busiest Man in England does, however, have its flaws, the most obvious of which is that as it is so clearly not a biography with warts and all, the reader never receives complete, balanced judgments of either Paxton or his patron. One does have to admit that Colquhoun provides enough evidence for us to conclude that his successes came at a heavy cost to his family, especially to his ever-loyal wife. I would also like to have much more information on Paxton's investments, particularly those in relation to George Hudson, one of the great swindlers of the age, whose rise and fall prompted important works by Carlyle, Dickens, and Trollope. Colquhoun appears so eager to present Paxton's biography as a spotless Horatio Alger narrative, she doesn't examine the implications of his making money during the great railway mania of the 1840s. We also need to know a little more about the duke, in part because, as I suggested above, he might have been the inspiration for one of Trollope's most important characters.

Part of the problem may arise from Colquhoun's approach, which seems largely based on the history of pre-scientific botany, gardens, and landscape design. As far as I can tell, she does a wonderful job of providing the context of Paxton's work where it touches upon these subjects, but I don't find sufficient attempts to relate Paxton's work to the growth of the science of botany or its professionalization. How important, I want to know, were these magnificent heated greenhouses and the collections they housed to contemporary and later developments? Similarly, since we know that artisan-botanists existed, I would like to have some idea whether Paxton ever encouraged any of them or provided assistance to their researches. In other words, this fascinating Victorian story omits some significant parts of the Victorian context. Nonetheless, in The Busiest Man in England, Kate Colquhoun has provided a valuable biography of an important innovator and at the same time provided some fascinating glances into the world of the very, very, very rich.

Related material

Additional Material from "The Busiest Man in England"


Colquhoun, Kate. "The Busiest Man in England:" A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect, and Visionary. Boston: David R. Godine, 2006. 300 pages. Many illustrations. ISBN 1-56792-301-1. Additional information about this book can be obtained from the publisher's website or by e-mailing

Created 22 September 2007

Last modified 26 November 2015