Joseph and Sarah Paxton
As head gardener from 1826 to 1858 Joseph Paxton played a fundamental role in creating many of the early garden features and planting schemes at Chatsworth; these became the foundations of the garden our visitors know and love today. Self-taught in many disciplines, Paxton was renowned among his contemporaries for his extraordinary skill set. This included engineering, architecture, horticulture and science. However Joseph was not alone in his endeavours.
Sir Joseph Paxton (3 August 1803 – 8 June 1865) was a visionary, described in his obituary in The Times as ‘the greatest gardener of his time, the founder of a new style of architecture, and a man of genius’. Born into a humble farming family in Bedfordshire, Paxton was the archetypal self-made Victorian, whose inquisitive nature and industrious energy propelled him to the forefront of a portfolio of fields – architecture, engineering, horticulture, and landscape design.
The Chatsworth Garden and Estate are intrinsic to Paxton’s story. When he arrived in 1826 Paxton was only 23; the garden was in some disrepair and the 6th Duke of Devonshire had little interest in gardening. By the time he retired as Head Gardener in 1858, Paxton had left an indelible mark upon the landscape and Chatsworth’s garden was known throughout the world.
For Paxton, Chatsworth was his training ground, the Great Conservatory was the progenitor of arguably his greatest achievement in any field – the Crystal Palace; designed and built for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Crystal Palace was roughly 25 times the size of the original; whilst the innovative use of uniform parts and mass production created an economy of scale that brought Paxton’s design in at 28% of the cost of his nearest rival for the commission.
Of Paxton’s horticultural successes, one outshines all others; the cultivation of the Musa Cavendishii, or the ‘Cavendish Banana’. Bought for £10, the plant was cultivated by Paxton in ‘plenty of water, rich loam soil and well-rotten dung’. It flowered at Chatsworth for the first time in November 1835. By May 1836 over one hundred fruits were ripening. Later re-exported via missionaries to Samoa, this plant is today the ancestor of the most commercially grown bananas worldwide. 7 billion Cavendish Bananas are eaten in the UK each year alone.
It was during Paxton’s many enterprises away from Chatsworth that his wife, Sarah, came into her own. Considered one of the unsung heroes of the nineteenth-century, she took over many of the duties of Head Gardener and Land Agent in his absence; acting as his proxy in the garden, enacting his instructions sent by letter. This put a huge level of responsibility on Sarah, expecting her to direct the foremen, and instruct the men directly; she had an in-depth knowledge of plants in the garden, as well as impressive business and financial management skills.
Much of Paxton’s Chatsworth was constructed under the trained eye of Sarah rather Joseph and it is without doubt that Joseph would not have achieved the feats he did without Sarah’s intelligence and hard work in a Victorian world dominated by men.
Over 400 letters were written by Sarah; full of information on her day to day activities when Joseph and the Duke were travelling away from Chatsworth.
From letters like these we have been able to take a more in-depth look into her life and duties which included arranging payment for workers, recruiting staff both for the house and garden, dealing with tenants on the estate and also recording significant horticultural events such as the flowering of the Victoria Regia Lily for the first time in the UK. These stories plus many more are part of the social history at Chatsworth and have shaped the garden and landscape that we see today.
Use the links below to find out more about Chatsworth and the influence of the Paxtons:
Did you know?
- Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) was described in his obituary as ‘the greatest gardener of his time, the founder of a new style of architecture, and a man of genius.’
- Paxton designed and built the Crystal Palace in London, which was used to host the Great Exhibition of 1851.
- Paxton cultivated the Cavendish Banana in 1835. The Cavendish is today the ancestor of the most commercially grown bananas worldwide.
- Paxton’s influence is both national (he contributed to a number of notable civic parks and landscapes throughout the UK) and international (gardeners and landscapers influenced by Paxton have created public parks in Australia, New Zealand and America).
- Joseph’s wife Sarah is incredibly important to the Paxton legacy. It was her who bore the responsibility for caring for and developing the Chatsworth Garden whilst Joseph was away,