Joseph Paxton

The Greatest Gardener of His Time

Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most eminent men of Victorian England. After a three-year apprenticeship and still in his teens, he was employed as a gardener at estate gardens and nurseries, devoting himself to the study of horticulture. In 1823 Paxton gained employment with the Horticultural Society at the gardens of Chiswick House, and in 1826 he came to the attention of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, George Spencer Cavendish, who hired him as head gardener at Chatsworth, the duke’s country estate in Derbyshire, England.

Paxton's Magazine of Botany (Vol. 4, 1838) Working with the support and encouragement of the Duke of Devonshire, the self-educated Paxton rebuilt the gardens of Chatsworth, which were open for the enjoyment of the public. He designed and constructed enormous greenhouses, fountains and waterworks, collected and cultivated plants, created arboretums, and built a pool for the cultivation of Victoria amazonica (known in the nineteenth century as Victoria regia), the gigantic water lily of South America. Paxton made Chatsworth one of England’s most famous gardens. The estate grounds continue to be open to the public today.

At Chatsworth Paxton successfully grew and brought into flower the Victoria amazonica. The lily bloomed for the first time outside of its natural habitat to great fanfare in November 1849. It was the extraordinary architectural structure of the underside of the lily pad upon which Paxton based his design of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, "a greenhouse bigger than ever a greenhouse was built before" (according to John Ruskin).

Paxton's Magazine of Botany (Vol. 4, 1838) Paxton founded the Magazine of Botany and Register of Flowering Plants. From 1834 until 1849, and for the price of two shillings, this monthly publication appealed to a wide range of readers and gardeners. From its lively collection of articles on the how to’s of gardening in plain English to the prolific and beautifully hand colored engravings of true to life plants, Paxton’s magazine became an instant favorite. From its beginning, the magazine was printed by the great nineteenth century printing firm Bradbury & Evans, whose steam presses operated twenty-four hours a day; they specialized in the color printing of illustrated books and magazines. Bradbury & Evans also printed the annual bound volumes of the Magazine of Botany and Register of Flowering Plants; all sixteen volumes may be found in the Book Arts & Special Collections Center of the San Francisco Public Library.

For more information on the life and legacy of Joseph Paxton readers may consult the following resources.

Materials owned by the San Francisco Public Library are linked to the online catalog.

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