The Great Conservatory of Chatsworth

Mar 31, 2022 0 comments

Before Joseph Paxton built the magnificent edifice of glass and iron, the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, he built an enormous greenhouse—the Great Conservatory, or Stove—on the grounds of Chatsworth House in the Derbyshire Dales. While building the Great Conservatory, Paxton perfected many of the techniques that he would later employ to build the Crystal Palace.

Paxton developed an interest in greenhouses in the 1830s when he was the head gardener at Chatsworth, which was considered one of the finest landscaped gardens of the time. After he had redesigned the gardens around the new north wing of the house and expanded Chatsworth's collection of conifers into a 40-acre arboretum which still exists, Paxton designed a series of buildings for cultivating exotic plants such as pineapples, which were highly prized at the time. Although the idea of growing plants in environmentally controlled areas dates back to Roman times, greenhouses were a new concept and those that already existed at Chatsworth were dilapidated. After experimentation, he designed a glass house with a ridge and furrow roof that would be at right angles to the morning and evening sun and an ingenious frame design that would admit maximum light. This design would soon be adopted by other greenhouse makers.

Joseph Paxton's great Conservatory at Chatsworth by William Callow.

Paxton’s next great building project was a house for holding the giant water lily from the Amazon, the Victoria regia lily. The waterlily’s giant leaves provided the inspiration for his conservatory. Paxton found that the secret to the lily’s rigidity were the ribs radiating from the center of the leaves and connecting with flexible cross-ribs. Paxton even tested the leaves’ sturdiness by floating his daughter Annie on a leaf.

Annie Paxton standing on a Victoria amazonica leaf in the lily house.

In 1836, Paxton began construction of the Great Conservatory. This huge glasshouse was 227 feet long, 123 feet wide and 62 feet tall. It was the largest glass building in the world. Inside there was room for two carriages to pass on the main thoroughfare, and stairs, hidden by ascending rocks, led to a gallery from which you could inspect the highest branches of the exotic palms and other trees flourishing there. There were ponds full of aquatic plants, rocks, mosses, ferns and brilliantly colored flowers in a tropical climate created by eight underground boilers fueled by coal which arrived by underground rail wagons. The boilers fed a seven-mile maze of 6-inch hot water pipes. In winter, it took 300 tons of coal to fuel the boilers.

Needless to say, the conservatory was prohibitively expensive to maintain. During the First World War, when coal became scarce, the conservatory was not heated and all the plants died. Following this, the Great Conservatory was demolished.

A modern reimagination of the Great Conservatory. Photo:


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