Joseph Paxton - Architect of the Crystal Palace

by KathleenDuffy

Sir Joseph Paxton rose from humble gardener to Head Gardener at Chatsworth House and Architect of the glass and iron Crystal Palace, home to The Great Exhibition of 1851.

In an age of outstanding men and women, Victorian gardener, entrepreneur and architect Joseph Paxton, was still an exceptional man.

Not only did he erect enormous greenhouses to house the tropical plants that were being brought back from the Empire, but he took a keen interest in the new railways. He was an early tree conservationist and a champion of public parks.

It's hard to believe that he was a humble gardener at the beginning of his amazing career.

Joseph Paxton at the Chatsworth Estate

Panoramic View of Chatsworth House
Panoramic View of Chatsworth House

Joseph Paxton was born on 3rd August 1803 at Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire. ( Some references state his birth year as 1801, but Paxton admitted in later life that he had pretended to be two years older in order to get a job with the Horticultural Society.)

His family were farmers and at age twenty-one he was employed as an under-gardener at the Horticultural Society’s gardens at Chiswick. His exceptional work came to the notice of the Duke of Devonshire and eventually he became Head Gardener to the Duke’s Chatsworth estate. It is believed that Paxton had considered emigrating to the United States before being taken on at Chatsworth.

His marriage to Sarah Brown, the housekeeper’s niece, would also prove a stroke of good fortune. She proved an astute business partner to Joseph’s burgeoning creativity.

In 1832 Paxton became Manager to all the Duke’s estates. He not only designed the gardens at Chatsworth, but built a model village and an arboretum. But his lily-house design and construction would have far-reaching consequences for modern building design.

Paxton’s Water Lily Inspires Glass House Design

The Gigantic Waterlily (Victoria Regia), In Flower At Chatsworth
The Gigantic Waterlily (Victoria Regia), In Flower At Chatsworth

In 1837 water lily seeds brought back to England from Guiana were germinated at Kew Gardens. The original plant was huge, but the germinated seeds produced unexceptional plants.

Paxton obtained a cutting. Despite putting it into a heated tank at Chatsworth, it wasn’t until he invented a paddle wheel which moved the water that the plant flourished. It reached massive proportions with eleven leaves, each five feet in diameter.

To test the buoyancy of the leaves, Paxton placed his small daughter on one of them. It took her weight without bending. On studying the underside of the leaf he noticed radiating ribs strengthened by cross-ribs. This huge lily needed a new home. In an early example of biomimicry, from his observations of the leaf Paxton built a light, airy lily house with a glass roof . It would not be the last time Paxton relied on this design.

Paxton Designs the Crystal Palace

At this period designs for The Crystal Palace were being considered. A brick built plan was already under consideration but, inspired by his lily house, Paxton came up with an idea. His unique concept for a structure made entirely of prefabricated iron and glass sections was accepted.

Within only nine days he had produced complete plans.

The building itself was completed in 1851, taking just eight months. It was seen as a triumph of engineering and a miracle of organised labour. In October 1851 Paxton was knighted by Queen Victoria.

In 1854 the Palace was moved to Sydenham but was destroyed by fire in 1936.

Some of Joseph Paxton’s Other Achievements


Paxton was not only a Victorian man - he was also a Renaissance man and seemed to have an interest in everything that was going on - and there was plenty in Victorian Britain!

  • He conserved huge trees by successfully moving them to alternative sites. He built the Crystal Palace around the elm trees in Hyde Park.
  • Paxton helped design many public parks. His outstanding achievement is Birkenhead Park.
  • He promoted the new railways, becoming a Director of the Midland Railway. His shares in this new form of transport made him a rich man.
  • He concerned himself with sewerage and traffic problems in London
  • He became a Liberal MP for Coventry in 1854, a seat which he kept until his death.
  • Among many private building commissions, Paxton designed Mentmore Towers for Baron Rothschild.
  • He designed a model village.
  • Paxton published many horticultural magazines, including The Gardener’s Chronicle and books of botanical drawings.

Paxton died in 1865. Despite having had no formal education, he was a fine example of Victorian Self-Help philosophy and enterprise.


The Crystal Palace: A Portrait of Victorian Enterprise by Patric Beaver (Hugh Evelyn 1970)

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Updated: 10/10/2013, KathleenDuffy
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WriterArtist on 11/06/2013

Visualizing and designing gardens and palaces can be really engaging, especially for these talented architects. There is no doubt that Joseph Paxton has put all his energy and talent to create the beautiful Crystal palace.

Kathleen Duffy on 11/05/2013

Hi Jo and Ologsinquito - Yes, that water lily really was thinking outside the box! Thanks for your comments :)

JoHarrington on 11/04/2013

Studying the water lily for architectural clues was sheer genius. Nice one!

ologsinquito on 10/16/2013

Joseph Paxton must have been exceedingly brilliant. I love the drawing of the giant water lily.

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