The re-creation of Joseph Paxton’s Great Conservatory faces the beautiful façade of the main house across the River Derwent, and dominates the showground with its pristine white, rounded walls. The structure is kept upright by fans constantly blowing air into its double skin.
Within is an airy, well-lit space rising to 20m (67ft) in the centre, giving a vivid idea of the massive scale of the original structure, designed and built by Joseph Paxton for the 6th Duke of Devonshire. It took four years to build, was completed in 1841, and cost £33,099 – equivalent to £1.5 million today. A massive central structure of moss-clothed poles, dripping into a central pool, has epiphytes attached, echoing the exotic inhabitants of the original Great Conservatory. This spectacular feature houses an immersive hanging installation by CityScapes.
Huge palms up to 9m (30ft) tall and several species of full-sized fig trees, including Ficus elastica, the commonly-grown rubber plant, form the centrepieces of many of the semi-circular beds, underplanted with colourful bromeliads, massed Clivia, Philodendron and Anthurium, among many others.
One bed tells the story of Paxton’s success in fruiting bananas at Chatsworth as early as 1835, from a compact cultivar sourced from China and dubbed Musa ‘Dwarf Cavendish’, for the 6th Duke – William George Spencer Cavendish. This selection was ultimately sent from Chatsworth back to more tropical climes, and due to its natural resistance to so-called Panama disease (Fusarium fungus), which hit widely-grown banana ‘Gros Michel’ in the 1950s, it has become the dominant banana in cultivation.
Also on display is an excellent wooden model of the Great Conservatory made in 1967, on a scale of 4ft to the inch (approximately 1.2m to 2.5cm), which gave a better idea of the sheer scale of the structure. On its completion it was the largest glass building on earth; 69m (227 feet) long, 37.5m (123 feet) wide and 20.4m (67 feet) high. It was forerunner of the Crystal Palace, built for the 1851 Great Exhibition, also designed by Paxton.
The Great Conservatory held many newly-discovered and newly-collected orchids, a particular passion of both the Duke and Paxton, but also held collections of many other plants, as this well-composed bed devoted to succulents and cacti demonstrates.
Among many species of the palm family on display, the forked and prominently-veined leaves of aptly-named ‘fishtail’ palms, of the Caryota genus, catch the eye, rising above the scarlet blooms and striped blades of dwarf Canna selections.
Always an arresting sight in full-flower, Australian bottlebrush (Callistemon) are named for their petal-less flowers, the stamens forming the brush-like shape. Drought and heat resistant, this is a genus that may become more widely-grown outdoors in the UK as the climate warms.
There is a great deal of information inside the conservatory, including this board introducing Joseph Paxton and his long-standing involvement with the Chatsworth Estate.
A timeline traces the stories of Paxton, Chatsworth and the RHS. Paxton was born in 1803, a year before the founding of the London Horticultural Society (which became the RHS); the 6th Duke became RHS President in 1838; Paxton designed Crystal Palace in 1850; was elected as the MP for Coventry in 1854, and only resigned as Head Gardener for Chatsworth in 1858, on the death of the 6th Duke. Paxton died in 1865, his personal contribution to horticulture immense.
►Take a virtual tour of the Great Conservatory