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C19th ferneries, greenhouses & conservatories

It is said that by the late Georgian years, everyone in England was becoming excited about the science of exotic plants: collecting, studying and classifying specimens from all over the world. In time it was ferns that fascinated country home residents and gentlemen botanists.

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.

Syon Park conservatory, 1826-30

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.

Crystal Palace, interior, 1851

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.

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, exterior

The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, in the park of the Royal Castle in Brussels, were and are a vast complex of monumental heated green houses. The complex was originally commissioned by Belgian King Leopold II, designed by Alphonse Balat and built towards the end of the 19th century (1874-95). The total floor surface of this immense complex is 2.5 hectares so it requires a substantial amount of heating. Unfortunately these greenhouses are not open to the public for most of the year.

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, interior
Now to something quite different. The first time I saw the Palmenhaus in Vienna’s 1st District, I thought it was a Paxton building... with the shape of Crystal Palace and the role of a greenhouse. The site had been occupied by a greenhouse which was from the 1823-6 era, built according to the designs of architect Ludwig von Remy. The architecture was in neo-Classical style and was actually inspired less by Paxton and more by the orangery of Schönbrunn, the Imperial Summer Palace in Vienna.

Palmenhaus Vienna, exterior and interior

At the turn of the century (1900-1), the first Palmenhaus greenhouse was demolished and a new one built, 128 metres long and 2050 square metres in area. The current Palmenhaus was built by architect Friedrich Ohmann, combining 19th century historicist architecture and the Jugendstil/Art Nouveau taste. Palmenhaus still houses plants of course, but it is today it is better known as a restaurant.

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