Joseph Paxton

Joseph Paxton

Sir Jospeh Paxton was an English architect, gardener, botanic and politician, famous as the author of the Crystal Palace’s project.

Early years

Joseph Paxton was born on August 3, 1801, in Bedfordshire in a family of a farmer. He had started his career as a garden boy at Chiswick Gardens and later became the Head gardener and landscape artist of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth.

In 1831 Paxton used so-called “forcing frames” constructions in designing greenhouses and applied this principle in projecting of the Great Conservatory and lily house, specially designed for the Victoria Regia – an exotic giant lily that grow in Amazon. Duke of Devonshire bought it seeds and entrusted them to Joseph. Its quick growth demanded a special house, which structure was inspired by the leaves of the plant. The architect was also preoccupied with laying out gardens in Birkenhead in Cheshire (1841).

Crystal Palace


The Crystal palace became life-work for Joseph-Paxton. He set off working over immediately after hearing that the the Royal Commission appointed to organise the Great Exhibition of 1851, had rejected all 233 projects submitted for the contest in April of 1850. He visited the place of a future building and made his first sketch on June 11, 1850. The whole design had been completed by June 24, 1850.
Everybody was stunned and European architects were indignant with the fact that insolent Paxton, who wasn’t an architect or even an artist, but a simple gardener, was going to erect a “bell glass”, a “greenhouse” instead of a grandiose palace. How could such commission be given to an ignoramus, when true art and true master existed? Actually, Paxton’s palace did really look like a greenhouse, as his huge experience in planning this type of constructions prompted such original and simple solution.

The project had been approved by the Royal Commission on July 26 and first preparations were already began on July 30. The building lasted four months – from September 26, 1850, to February 1, 1851. The result absolutely corresponded to the conception of the “ignoramus-gardener” and was enthusiastically welcomed by public. The reason was simple – it embodied an aspire of the Foggy Albion towards light and the whole structure, its endless interior was flooded with light.

Architectural features of Crystal palace

The Palace didn’t have inner walls and occurred to be a single giant hall. The architect took care about trees in Hyde Park that the Parliament forbade to cut down: two century-old elms remained sheltered in the building itself. As famous Russian philosopher, historian and writer Homyakov noticed after visiting the exhibition: “Things that are being built must respect what has grown on its place”.
Jospeh Paxton used perfected prefabricated constructions he had invented before. Explaining their organization, he compared his inner rigid frame with a table, and glass roof in wooden casement – with ajour tablecloth. The whole project was based on one standard element – a glass of the maximum possible size. At that time the biggest size of the glass-plate was 1,25 meter. Chane brother’s factory in Birmingham produced 300 000 identical glass plates for the Crystal Palace.

The Crystal Palace became one of the first buildings, where now so common and wide-spread materials were used: it was designed of equal segments out of 3300 cast-iron columns of the same width, one-type wooden frames and metal beams. Wooden and metal elements were ordered in different factories of Birmingham and fitted together in London.

In the upshot, the building’s space was equal to four St. Peter’s cathedrals – over 74 400 square meters. And the speed of its erecting was enormous for that epoch. It general length – around 563 meters, the main dome was 53 meters high. Nevertheless, despite all its architectural refinement and beauty, the problem of vault ceiling wasn’t solve in the Crystal Palace The half-circular vaulting in the transept (transversal nave) had a wooden frame and covered an arch span of 22 meters – less than many of the Medieval structures had.

The Crystal Palace was realization of a totally new, ambitious idea that had no prototype in history of art. It was the first building of such sizes made of glass, iron and wood, mounted with bolted joint was. As Paxton’s contemporaries recognized, it was revolution in architecture that led to origin of a new style. Since that time, the visual appearance of a building was often shaped by the conception of design constructor. The architect and his assistants Charles Fox and William Cubitt were knighted for their invaluable achievement.

The Palace had been dismounted after the exhibition and was moved to Sydenham on the south of London. It was destroyed during the fire in 1936.

Further projects

Paxton’s outstanding engineering skills were of great demand, so even wealthy Baron James de Rothschild hired him together with George Henry Stokes (his future son-in-law) to work over Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire. A number of unrealized projects of glass and metal constructions also belong to his authorship. For instance, Joseph elaborated the “greenhouse” principle even for urban planning. In 1854 the problem of underground net of communication lines was actively discussed. Jospeh Paxton proposed alternative variant to it: the Great Victorian Way – to surround London with glass arcade 11,5 miles long, made by analogy with the Crystal Palace. It was supposed to unite a glass-roofed street, railways, dwelling etc. The propose was abandoned.

Joseph Paxton died on June 8, 1865.