In the Duke’s and Duchess’s Garden

Perhaps the greatest influence on the Chatsworth estate gardens was a man named Joseph Paxton. Paxton began his gardening life as a laborer in the Horticultural Society gardens. [citation]

As the tale is sometimes told, the

“immensely rich” duke [6th Duke of Devonshire], who had two-hundred thousand acres of land, three great country estates, an equal number of London mansions, and an income of £70,000, apparently encountered Paxton in the garden at Chiswick House and was impressed enough to hire a young man who had just reached his twenty-third birthday. [citation]

The enterprising Paxton didn’t miss a beat:

[He] set off for Chatsworth on the Chesterfield coach arriving at Chatsworth at half past four in the morning. By his own account he had explored the gardens after scaling the kitchen garden wall, set the staff to work, eaten breakfast with the housekeeper and met his future wife, Sarah Bown, the housekeeper’s niece, completing his first morning’s work before nine o’clock. [citation]

Also to Paxton’s credit are designing the Crystal Palace and cultivating the (now endangered) Cavendish banana, from which “practically every banana consumed in the western world is directly descended.” [citation] As the story goes,

Bananas have been grown at Chatsworth since 1830 when head gardener Joseph Paxton got his hands on a specimen imported from Mauritius.

He had apparently been inspired after seeing a banana plant depicted on Chinese wallpaper in one of the home’s 175 rooms, but today’s head gardener Steve Porter is sceptical about the story.

“Certainly the timings fit”, he said, “but I think it’s much more likely that Paxton was always on the lookout for new and exotic plants and was well connected enough to know when the banana plants arrived in England.” [citation]

One of Paxton’s big projects at Chatsworth, which can still be seen today, was the Rockery, “built as a reminder of the 6th Duke’s visit to the Alps during the Grand Tour of Europe. . . . The largest construction, the Wellington Rock, is nearly 14m high and has a waterfall running down it. There is a maze of paths threading round and beneath the rocks.” [citation]

We found it a grand and pleasant place to ramble, but not all, it seems, have been quite so impressed. The chapter “Artificial Rockeries” in a 19th century tome, The Horticulturist, and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, states the case against:

The Chatsworth rockery is but an unsuccessful attempt to impress the mind by an imitation of nature. Notwithstanding its magnitude, it is but a mimicry of some of the natural rockeries that might be seen at places of less repute . . . and such natural rockeries as we frequently meet with in this country, wanting only a little help from art . . . . [citation, p. 277]

And that’s just a sampling of the writer’s complaints. The writer concludes

The great artificial gardens at Chatsworth and other places in England, can neither be regarded as works of instruction, nor models of imitation, but rather monuments of extravagance . . . . [no] person of refined taste and correct judgment, can view these costly monstrosities of vanity and uselessness, without regarding them as a repetition of the vanity of the eastern monarchs . . . . [citation, p. 279]

To which all I can say is, jeez louise, what a grump—and indeed, the editor of the Journal seems to have thought this harsh enough to warrant appending an “Ed.” comment to the text:

Touching the rock garden at Chatsworth, we must differ from our correspondent. . . . time and vegetation have so completely harmonised it with the high hills of Derbyshire, which rise behind it, and of which it now seems a spur, that we will venture to say that nine strangers out of ten would walk through it in full belief that it was part of a natural rocky pass in the grounds . . . . [citation, p. 280]

My guess is none of our number were among the nine, but that didn’t prevent, in the least, our enjoyment of a stroll through Paxton’s imaginary landscape.

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Listening List

Frederick Delius, In a Summer Garden (1911)

Delius’ music invariably carries illustrative titles, almost always in some way connected with the power of nature, but these are intended more as a guide to the music than an indication of a particular story line. When asked for a programme note on his orchestral work ‘In a Summer Garden’, Delius stated: “I do not much care for analytical programmes as they are generally done, and for modern impressionistic music they are totally useless. Besides, I wish the audience to concentrate their attention entirely on listening to the music and not to have their attention drawn away by musical examples.’” [citation]


3 Flutes, 2 Oboes, English horn, 2 Clarinets, 3 Bassoons
4 Horns, 2 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Percussion (Glockenspiel, Triangle), Harp, Strings


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog unless indicated otherwise, the photographs are mine.

10 thoughts on “In the Duke’s and Duchess’s Garden

  1. larrymuffin

    Surely the current Duke of Devonshire , Peregrine is worth 800 million pounds, a tidy sum as they say. Very nice post and most interesting by its details.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Laurent: Yes, I subsequently read that somewhere. Quite a tidy sum indeed! I’m having continued fun ferreting out details and so am especially pleased you’re enjoying them!

  2. shoreacres

    That grump who didn’t like the Rockery probably enjoyed the heck out of the wolf (?) enshrined next to that line of over-pruned trees. I loved seeing the water features, and the more natural plantings. I can appreciate a formal garden, but the sweet chaos of flowers and plants tumbling over one another appeals in a deeper way.

    Did I ever tell you that I had a friend, long ago, who was descended from Paxton? She could reel off details about his life, and the Crystal Palace, until the cows came home: quite appropriate, actually, since she was Texan to the core.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Love that you had a friend who was descended from Paxton. Such a small world, sometimes, isn’t it? It would be fun to find out more about the grumpy writer (R.B.L., Boston). I got the sense he preferred a more natural landscape, but as I was reading a google books excerpt, it was hard to get the gist in its full grumpiness. I do love that it’s possible to see something of these old books that one would never know existed otherwise. I just looked back now, and here’s what he writes close to the article’s beginning: “It would appear the taste of the Puritans, which swept everything bearing the semblance of grace and beauty, from their religious and civil architecture, inspired their descendants with a taste no less justifiable of sweeping everything from ornamental grounds that has the shape and form nature gave it . . .”. It’s quite a rant!

      1. shoreacres

        I just this week discovered that one of my readers is descended from Joseph Dalton Hooker –- director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. One of my favorite plants (eryngo) bears Hooker’s name: Eryngium hookeri.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Another wonderful bit of serendipity. I looked up the plant, and it’s definitely a winner. It doesn’t seem to grow up our way, though it seems somehow familiar.

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – fascinating and am so glad for your tour … gardens improve, if tended, over time – it’s the great gardener’s vision that inspires. I didn’t know Paxton’s background – or hadn’t taken it in … incredible man … cheers Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: You remind me, with your comment that gardens improve (if tended) over time, of a recent visit to the Central Park Conservatory Garden in NYC. It was a weekday, and the gardeners were out in force, taking out the last of the bulbs and putting in the summer plantings. The planning to do this is incredible, spacing, color, bloom cycle, all of that, and of course they do it to tremendous effect, year after year.

  4. David N

    I don’t remember seeing the rockery at Chatsworth, but I love me a good grotto – had a bit of a fixation on them as a kid. Put a statue of a river god within and I’m in seventh heaven.

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