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Paxton’s Palace : Sir Joseph Paxton not only designed the venue for the Great Exhibition of 1851, he embodied the festival’s most cherished principles.
Paxton’s Palace

Sir Joseph Paxton designed the ‘Crystal Palace’, the enormous cast iron and glass conservatory that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. Strange as it may seem, he also played a key role in kickstarting commercial fruit farming in the Pacific by exporting banana plants — from Derbyshire.

JOSEPH Paxton one day boasted to MP John Ellis, a fellow board-member of the Midland Railway, that he could design a building truly fit to host the forthcoming Great Exhibition of 1851, the exciting showcase for Imperial science and industry destined for Hyde Park.

Ellis told him there were only nine days left for formal applications, so Paxton simply published his sketches in the Illustrated London News, ensuring that his breathtaking ‘Crystal Palace’ in cast iron and glass instantly eclipsed all rivals. The design came from his greenhouses at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, where he had been Head Gardener: their strong yet slender frames were inspired by waterlilies.

But Paxton did not only design the Exhibition’s venue; he embodied its spirit. The Cavendish banana trees cultivated in his greenhouses established a profitable cash crop for Pacific Islanders, who sold the fruits back to British consumers - a perfect demonstration of the benefits of Imperial industry and trade on show at Paxton’s Crystal Palace.

* Paxton would convince doubters of a waterlily’s natural strength by getting his nine-year-old-daughter Annie to stand on one.

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Picture: Photo by Philip Henry Delamotte (1821-1889), via Smithsonian Libraries and Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
The Crystal Palace, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, was removed from Hyde Park after the Great Exhibition of 1851 to Sydenham in South London, where it remained until a devastating fire completely destroyed it in 1936. This photo from the Water Temple was taken in 1854. Paxton (a gardener by trade) dared to use the very latest in Victorian engineering and manufacturing to produce something six times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral. Yet it all came from an idea he had taken fifteen years before from the humble waterlily.
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