Picture the scene. A small group of well dressed people stand around a room with a large pond in the middle watching a serious looking man and a 9 yr old girl. Everyone watches in silence as he lifts her up and swings her out over the edge of the water. You must have been able to hear the proverbial pin drop as he slowly lowers her down onto a plank of wood that was itself sitting on top of a large floating leaf. The hush soon turns into gasps and then a round of applause as the girl, instead of sinking under the surface, takes a hesitant step and smiles. The leaf hasn’t buckled even under the 15lb weight of the plank and the 42lb weight of the child. Not a tiny fraction had gone under the water. Her shoes aren’t even wet. The serious looking man had not just wowed his audience but was about to transform British architecture as well inspired by the strength of that leaf.
The scene isn’t imaginary. It took place at Chatsworth, the Derbyshire seat of the Duke of Devonshire, in late November 1849 and inspired the poet Douglas Jerrold to pen these [far from immortal] lines…
For the serious man was Joseph Paxton, the Duke’s gardener and the little girl was his daughter Annie. The leaf belonged to the newly introduced Victoria regia, [now Victoria amazonica] the largest waterlily in the world. Paxton had already realised the waterlilies extraordinary qualities, and the structure of the leaves that supported Annie were soon to inspire him to design the Crystal Palace.
The giant waterlily was first noted in the early 19thc by European botanists exploring the vast Amazon basin , and herbarium specimens were sent to Paris in 1828, where it didn’t attract as much attention as might have been expected. It took a Brit to publicize it properly. Sir Robert Schomburgk saw it when exploring British Guiana [now Guyana] for the Geographical Society of London in 1837.
His account published in 1841 gives a little of the sense of amazement he must have felt: “All calamities were forgotten. A gigantic leaf, from five to six feet in diameter, salver-shaped, with a broad rim, of a light-green above, and a vivid crimson below, rested upon the water! Quite in character with the wonderful leaf was the luxuriant flower, consisting of an immense number of petals, passing in alternate tints from pure white to rose and pink… The smooth water was covered with blossoms, and, as I rowed from one to the other, I always observed something new to admire.”
Schomburgk was very keen to share his discovery. He attempted to take some plants from the river and transplant them to a new home in Georgetown, the colony’s capital, but was unsuccessful. However he had drawings made, and collected specimens which were sent back to London and led to the first botanical description being published later that year by John Lindley who named the waterlily in honour of Britain’s new young monarch Queen Victoria.
Schomburgk was not the only one to try. For more than a decade afterwards all attempts to get the plant to grow “in captivity” failed miserably. Although a few viable seeds reached the newly founded Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1846 and were successfully germinated, they soon died. “Many are the disappointments and delays of Science” declared Sir William Hooker, Kew’s director in the monograph about Victoria regia that he wrote in 1847 using what little he had seen and the drawings and descriptions sent to him. In it he provides a detailed history of European encounters with what was dubbed ‘the royal water lily’ including a note by Thomas Bridges describing its growing conditions.
Eventually seeds reached Kew in bottles of fresh water and just 6 of these were successfully raised. It was one of these plants that featured in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1849. Kew retained 3 of the specimens, one went to Regents Park where the Botanical Society had its HQ, another to Syon House, the seat of the Duke of Northumberland and the third to Chatsworth. The race was now on to get Victoria to flower, but one venue had a flying start.
Chatsworth had the Duke of Devonshire’s money and enthusiasm twinned with Paxton’s expertise and imagination. Between them the duke and his gardener had turned Chatsworth not just into one of the leading public horticultural showcases in Britain but its walled kitchen garden into an experimental centre for both plants and garden technology, and in the process built up a team of highly skilled gardeners. And they had the Great Stove which at 2800 m2 was the largest glasshouse in the world, built in 1836.
Once Kew had agreed to give a Victoria to the Duke, Paxton began work on planning its new home and then arranged to go and collect it in person. He arrived at Kew at 6 in the morning on the 3rd August 1849 and was given a tiny plant with just 4 unfurled leaves, the largest about 5″ across giving no hint of what was to come. He packed it into a small box and hurried to Euston for a train back to Derbyshire “in order that the plant should feel the removal as little as possible.”
At Chatsworth it was taken straight into the conservatory where a specially designed tank had been prepared. This was 12ft square and about a metre deep, with 5 cartloads of earth – a mixture of peat and burned loam to Paxton’s own recipe – piled into a heap in the middle.
A triple row of lead pipes ran around the base to heat the water, and a pump was installed in one corner to keep up a gentle circulation of water to simulate as near as possible its home riverine conditions. By August 10th, at 85F the water was warm enough for the plant to be put in place on top of the mound of earth.
It was a fast grower and by the end of September there were 19 leaves the largest of which was over a metre across. Paxton wrote to the Duke, who was at Lismore his Irish estate, on 1st October: “We have been obliged to make the tank for the Victoria as large again as when your Grace saw it. One leaf this morning measures 4 feet across. Nothing can exceed it in health and vigour.” But Paxton went on: “I fear this extraordinary growth will not go on much longer as the weather has set in, wet and very cloudy.”
It was not only Chatsworth where the weather was worrying. Paxton wrote to the Duke again on the 15th October to inform him that “the Victoria at Kew has not increased at all in size.” But Despite the poor weather continuing by 2nd November the largest leaf at Chatsworth reached 14ft in circumference and to Paxton’s delight “Victoria has shewn flower.” He wrote to the Duke: “An enormous bud like a great Poppyhead made its appearance yesterday morning and by this evening it looks like a large Peach placed in a cup, from what I can see it will be 8 or 10 days before it comes into flower….No account can give a fair idea of the grandeur of its appearance; I believe the plant will shew another bud in a few days, everybody here is mad about it even the labourers take great interest in it.”
He began to plan how to celebrate the forthcoming marvel, writing to the Duke that “As this noble plant bears the Queen’s name I think your Grace would like to send the first flower with a large leaf to Her Majesty.” The first flower finally opened on Wednesday 14th of November, and Robert Aughtie, one of the Chatsworth gardeners, noted in his diary that “At night Mr. Paxton started off to Windsor… with a flower and leaf of the Victoria Regina water lilly [sic], to the Queen—they returned on Friday afternoon.”
Paxton then wrote to many of the great and good including William Hooker at Kew: “Victoria Regia is now in full flower at Chatsworth, and will continue I should think for a fortnight or three weeks longer as there are a constant succession of buds coming up, with the new leaves. I hope you will come and see it. Most likely your plants are shewing by this time, if not, the sight of our plant is worth a journey of a thousand miles.”
The Duke himself got back at Chatsworth on the 17th just in time to see the opening of the second flower. His diary entry read: “Came here express train by two o’clock to see the grand water lily, Victoria regia—it is stupendous. Found Dr Lindley and Mr Curry with Paxton.” Robet Aughtie noted that there “was a very sharp black frost…the first of winter.”
Victoria had plenty of other visitors. For VIPs there was a special treat, and “the great water lily was illuminated for the Duke, it being fully expanded only in the evening.”
Paxton wrote “We have two artists Mr. Bartholomew & Mr. Holdin drawing away at it, Holdin sat up until half past two this morning. Sir William Hudson and Lady Newburgh have been also. Lady Newburgh who got upon the plank and examined the flower close to it.” [That makes it seem as if Lady Newburgh also ventured out onto a lily pad, although I’ve seen no other reference to that, or maybe there was a ‘viewing plank’ across the tank.] It was then that Annie made her star turn. “Nothing I believe has caused so much stir in the fashionable world and also the world of gardening.. . . . Annie is quite proud at being placed upon the leaf. She was put on for Lady Newburgh and the Duke.”
A sign of how meticulous was Paxton’s attention to the minutiae of growing Victoria that detailed, [and I mean detailed] record of every leaf and every change in the plant was kept. It took up nearly a whole page when it was published in Gardeners Chronicle.
A purpose-built lily house was begun that year and finished the following spring. It was not in the main public area of the estate but right under Paxton’s nose, next door to his own Italianate villa in the walled garden.
As in his design for the Great Stove, Paxton used standardized sizes and prefabricated parts. He repeated the simple iron and glass module that formed its walls making it both the framework of the house and crucially its structural strength. He then used an improved version of Loudon’s ridge and furrow roofing to construct what was described by his biographer George Chadwick as “the simplest, lightest, and most economical form of roofing then seen.”
Not only did this maximise the amount of light that could reach the plants but it required no support other than 8 hollow cast iron columns that also acted as drainpipes. It meant that a much bigger tank 33ft in diameter could be installed and allowed the plant to spread almost as much as it could in the wild. There is a lengthy written description with these images in Gardeners’ Chronicle.
It was a small-scale architectural and horticultural triumph.
But Victoria had another gift to the world. The Royal Commissioners for the Great Exhibition had rejected nearly 250 designs from other architects, and with time running out Paxton’s idea of building a glass and iron structure from prefabricated sections like the Great Stove and the Lily House, suddenly gained favour.
When he spoke at the Royal Society of Arts in November 1850 amongst all his drawings plans, diagrams he took with him was one of Victoria’s extraordinary leaves “five feet in diameter, the growth of five days to explain his thinking.” It was, according the RSA’s Transactions, “The most interesting illustration… the underside of the leaf presents a beautiful example of natural engineering…”
Paxton’s knowledge of glasshouse technology was second to none and so perhaps it’s not surprising that his initial doodle for the Crystal Palace, done on blotting paper during a meeting about something else, already incorporated all the basic features of the finished building, while detailed plans, calculations and costings were ready less than a fortnight later. Hailed as brilliantly innovative they opened up all sorts of new possibilities in architecture…and all, at least in large part, thanks to a leaf.