Sir Joseph Paxton, landscape gardener and architect, is one of the most famous figures associated with the history of the RHS. Before reopening the Library this spring, we decided that the Paxton bust would be cleaned and displayed in the upper reading room of the Library.
Paxton's life history
Born in 1803, he became a student gardener in 1823, at the Horticultural Society of London (which became the Royal Horticultural Society in 1861). The 6th Duke of Devonshire, who was landlord at the Society’s grounds, took Paxton on as Head Gardener of Chatsworth in 1826, where he stayed until the Duke died in 1858.
During this time he successfully grew a rare waterlily – the huge Victoria amazonica – and designed a glasshouse chiefly to house it. The glasshouse design was said to have been inspired by the leaf of the Victoria amazonica, and this set him on the path to his second career.
In 1850 Paxton was chosen to design the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in Kensington in 1851 – his greatest commission and for which he received a knighthood. The palace was later moved, under Paxton’s direction, to Penge Park, Sydenham, and Paxton later redesigned the entire park.
Paxton was also honorary fellow and vice-president of the Royal Horticultural Society, and died in 1865.
History of Paxton's bust
The bust was sculpted (presumably from life), by Edward William Wyon in 1864 and exhibited at the Royal Academy. It was owned by Lord Brassey, a politician, and once the Governor of Victoria, who gifted the sculpture to the Royal Horticultural Society in 1909, where it was displayed for many years in the Society’s Council Room. In preparation for building works at the RHS’s London building in 1999, Paxton was removed for safekeeping, and put into storage, until 2001 when he was placed in a quiet corner of the lower reading room in the Lindley Library.
The bust was sent to the sculpture conservator at the beginning of December. The conservation treatment consisted of a general clean, followed by steam cleaning on the areas that had accumulated some very stubborn dirt. Following the cleaning, the bust was found to have a bit of discolouration in places, so a mixture of artist pigments and waxes were used to return the surface and colour of the bust to a much better condition.
The Paxton bust arrived back at the RHS at the end of January. A plinth, in keeping with the date of the bust, has been sourced, and recently arrived at the RHS. The plinth and bust were put into place at the beginning of March, ready for the reopening of the Library.
Having been off display for so many years, we are very excited to have him back on show again, where he deserves to be.
Even if you are not an RHS member, the RHS Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment.
RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries - visit our online catalogue.