Bicton Park palm house, 1820
The Palm House at Bicton Park in Devon is the earliest glass structure I could find. It dates back to the 1820s and was amazingly constructed using 18,000 panes of glass. 1st Baron Rolle must have been passionate about things horticultural because he also commissioned a hermitage garden, rose gardens, fernery and a pinetum for conifers.
The architect, John Loudon, was said to make the domical conservatory his signature shape. He wrote booklets on the construction of hot houses in 1805, 1817 and 1818, and greatly influenced Joseph Paxton who erected his great conservatory at Chatsworth at least 15 years after Bicton Park was completed.
The availability of cast iron and mass-produced glass to build large glass houses for growing tender and exotic plants could not have come at a better time. The loveliest part of Syon Park's gardens was the Great Conservatory. The 3rd Duke of Northumberland commissioned Charles Fowler to build a new conservatory in 1826, one of the first of its kind to be built out of metal and glass. It was originally designed to act as a show house for the Duke's exotic plants and, like Bicton Park, is said to have inspired Joseph Paxton in his designs for the Crystal Palace.
Surgeon and amateur naturalist Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward soon realised that he needed to provide a special environment for growing these delicate plants, a micro-climate that was light, airy, warm, moist and pollution free. Not easily achieved, I'd imagine. But he soon popularised large structures for ferns that had glass panes in the sloping roof sections. These could be carried on ships returning from exotic locations, ensuring that collectors back home received their precious speciments in a thriving condition.
James Bateman and his wife Maria, who bought Biddulph Grange in Stoffordshire in 1840, had a passion for plants AND the money to make their botanical dreams come true. Of course it was not difficult when James' father made a fortune in coal mining... and left it all to James. Nonetheless Bateman had every single explorer and scientist who ever sailed to Egypt, China, North America and other lands bring back fabulous botanical samples. This Victorian plant-hunter became an expert botanist, especially re pines, orchids, dahlias, ferns, azaleas and rhododendrons.
In the late 1830s Joseph Paxton, 6th Duke of Devonshire’s estate manager, built a wonderful conservatory at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire (now destroyed). This was the largest glass building in the world, at the time.
Palm House, Kew, 1844-8
Temperate House, Kew, 1859-98
Besides educating visitors in the natural world, one of the functions of English green houses at the time was to display the exotic range of plants and flowers that flourished in the British Empire. Inspired by Chatsworth and by the passion for scientific knowledge, architect Decimus Burton and iron founder Richard Turner designed the much larger palm house in the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in 1844-48. Palm House was 363’ long, 100’ wide, 66’ high. For big, beautiful photos of Kew Gardens, inside and out of the glass houses, see Architecture of Europe blog.
At Kew Gardens, this summer holiday, they are filling the Palm House with the sounds of the rainforest with Chris Watson’s Whispering in the Leaves sound installation, recreating the rainforests of South and Central America. The education, and the pleasure, continue at Palm House, 160 years after it all started.
In 1859, the Government allocated a substantial budget to build the Temperate House at the Botanic Gardens and directed Decimus Burton to prepare designs for the conservatory. The Treasury was clearly having budgetary problems but the building was finally completed in 1898. Temperate House was the greenhouse that had twice the floor area of the Palm House and is the world's largest surviving Victorian glass structure. It still contains plants from all the world’s temperate regions.
Joseph Paxton achieved great fame by his designs for Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition in 1851 in Hyde Park London. Crystal Palace was another stunning cast-iron and glass building. It may not have looked very different from previous greenhouses in shape, but it was gigantic compared to earlier structures. It was five times as long as the Palm House in Kew and nearly twice as high.
A very fine collection of gardens was assembled at Tatton Park near Tatton Hall in the beautiful Cheshire Peak District. The first formal gardens were already well established and consisted of a walled garden to the south of the house, a formal semicircular pond to its north and formal lines of trees to the east and west.
But by the 1850s, the Egerton family needed a top quality fernery built, specifically to house their collection of ferns, especially tree ferns, from New Zealand and Australia. Tatton’s fernery and Italian garden, which first appeared in 1859, were designed by the very same Joseph Paxton. And Paxton’s assistant in the Tatton project was his son-in-law, George Stokes. Once again Paxton designed Tatton’s fernery to be a structure of glass and cast iron.
Tatton Park fernery, 1859.
Today the glass houses, fernery and showhouse at Tatton Park are open to visitors. The fernery still contains tree ferns and the showhouse has changing displays of flowering plants. How wonderful that Paxton could find it exactly as he had left it, 150 years ago.
Ballywalter Park conservatory, mid 1860s
Ballywalter Park is located on the outskirts of Ballywalter in Ireland. It is a classic example of an early Victorian county house in the palazzo style. A fine conservatory was added to the garden in the mid 1860s, containing important collections of rhododendrons and roses. The architect Sir Charles Lanyon had considerable experience in designing conservatories - his 1840 palm house at Belfast botanic garden was one of the earliest examples of curvilinear iron & glass construction. The delicate glass dome at Ballywalter Park is both functional and beautiful to look at.