Grand designs

A Thing in Disguise: the visionary life of Joseph Paxton

Kate Colquhoun <em>Fourth Estate, 307pp,

Joseph Paxton, the subject of Kate Colquhoun's excellent first book, is the genius gardener and self-taught engineer at Chatsworth House who designed Crystal Palace. Colquhoun has ploughed through an immense archive of material, producing much that is original, and in telling the story of one of the most remarkable Englishmen, she sheds abundant light on the period he adorned.

Paxton was a poor boy who rose by his own cleverness. He was a gardener and plantsman of distinction; an aesthete; an engineer of superb ingenuity; and a pioneer of modern architecture. He was not merely superbly himself: he was also a parable of his age, an embodiment of what made Victorian England so much more interesting and successful than Blair's Britain. Paxton was someone whose eye and brain lifted him way beyond his modest agricultural Bedfordshire origins. (He spoke with a Bedfordshire accent, and dropped his aitches.)

Yet he was not self-made. He was duke-made. He began as a junior gardener for the Duke of Bedford. Then he worked as a labourer at Chiswick, which was inherited by that great aesthete, traveller and patron the 6th Duke of Devonshire. The duke immediately spotted his potential and engaged him to transform the gardens at Chatsworth, which had been left to grow wild for more than half a century.

Paxton became not merely the duke's gardener, but his best friend. They travelled everywhere together, looking at English gardens, private and municipal, and also going to Europe, smoking cigars together and learning Italian. It is perhaps worth stressing that both men were heterosexual. Paxton was married, and had children whom he loved but neglected for his work. The duke had girlfriends. But in some ways, the friendship between the two men was the greatest thing in both their lives.

In 1844, the Emperor of Russia, Nicholas I, visited England, and because the duke had known him in his youth, a visit to Chatsworth was promised and expected. Inspired by a fountain at Wilhelmshohe in Cassel, which he had visited with the duke, Paxton set to work to recreate it at Chatsworth: 100,000 cubic yards of soil were moved by spade; a conduit two and a half miles long was cut into the moor and 200 tons of iron pipes were laid. Paxton experimented with hydrau-lics and pneumatics to perfect this extraordinary phenomenon, a 260-foot fountain powered entirely by the water falling in the cascade. The result was one of the most marvellous fountains in Europe.

This blend of visual ingenuity and hard work lay behind Paxton's inspired designs for Crystal Palace in 1851. The story of how, at the last minute, dud designs were rejected in favour of Paxton's is well known. This building - symbolising free trade and British world supremacy - was, characteristically, both slightly fantastical and entirely innovative.

But none of this could have happened without the duke. This marvellous double act exemplifies the reason why Victorian England, for all its faults, was the embodiment of aristocratic liberalism and progressive design.

When, in 1936, Paxton's Crystal Palace, now located at Sydenham in south London, went up in flames, many architects realised the debt they owed to Paxton. Le Corbusier described it as a last witness to the era of faith and daring. Nothing could have been less like the Millennium Dome. Crystal Palace was both functional and exuberant. It had also been paid for by the committee that organised the exhibition, so the profits, which were so prodigious that they paid for the complex of museums in South Kensington, were never in question. Magnificently written, researched and produced, this is a cheering book about a pair of excellent men.

A N Wilson is the author of The Victorians (Hutchinson)

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2003 issue of the New Statesman, How fat became a political issue