08 October 2018

Review: "The Busiest Man in England": A Life of Joseph Paxton by Kate Colquhoun

Hardcover, 303 pages
Published 2006 (originally 2003)

Acquired April 2009
Read November 2017
"The Busiest Man in England": A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect & Victorian Visionary
by Kate Colquhoun

This was a fascinating biography of Joseph Paxton, who began as a working-class gardener on a country estate and ended up designing the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition and serving as Member for Parliament. Kate Colquhoun has little to say about Joseph Paxton's origins, because the details are sketchy, but once he's older, he apprentices at the Horticultural Society, and then he is hired as head gardener by William Cavendish, Sixth Duke of Devonshire. Paxton was an intelligent, enthusiastic man whose enthusiasms fed into a positive feedback loop with the Duke. Basically, anything Paxton wanted to do with the estate, the Duke would pay for. They amassed a huge collection of orchids, racing others to cultivate and flower species new to England. Paxton got the first Victoria regia (a giant water lily several meters wide) to flower, and was also the first person to cultivate a banana in England. The bananas we eat today are the Cavendish bananas, named after Paxton's patron.

Paxton taught himself architecture to build new glasshouses for the Duke's collection, and he put in a proposal for the building to house the Great Exhibition. This thrust him into the national spotlight, and soon he was designing public parks, on the boards of railway corporations, standing for Parliament, creating a daily newspaper edited by Charles Dickens, and organizing relief efforts in the Crimea! Colquhoun's account of his rise is a fascinating look at a fascinating life, and she peppers the book with little human details ably, especially the stories of Paxton and the Duke's appreciation for each other and for plant life. Their enthusiasm for rare plants is infectious even through the printed page. I loved her accounts of Victoria's two visits to the Duke's estate, one as a young princess, one with Albert in tow. The Duke of Wellington thought Paxton's gardeners so well organized that he said Paxton would have made a good general!

Arguably, the Victorian period was the first time we really became conscious that we were moving into the future, and Paxton was one of the people trying to design that future. "The Busiest Man in England" is a great story in itself, and also filled with connections to other stories of the nineteenth century: I was pleased to see, for example, that Jane Loudon (author of The Mummy!: A Story of the Twenty-Second Century) got a couple mentions, and Paxton's life brought him into contact with Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Tenniel, and many other familiar names. A nice personal story from my favorite period of history.

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