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A Thing in Disguise (paperback)


Price: £8.99


(also sold in the USA under the title 'The Busiest Man in England')

By Kate Colquhoun.

A brilliantly conceived biogaphy of Joseph Paxton, horticulturist to the Duke & Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth, arcitect of the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and later at Sydenham and one of the greatest unsung heroes of the Victorian Age.

In the nineteenth century, which witnessed a revolution in horticulture, urban planning and architecture, Joseph Paxton, a man with no formal education, strode like a colossus. Head gardener at Chatsworth by the age of twenty-three, and encouraged by the sixth Duke of Devonshire whose patronage soon flourished into the defining friendship of his life, Paxton set about transforming this Derbyshire estate unto the greatest garden in England. Visitors there were astonished by the enormous glasshouse and ambitious waterworks he built, the collection of orchids, the largest in all England, the dwarf bananas and the gargantuan lily, the trees and plants brought back from all over the world. Queen Victoria came to marvel and, increasingly, with the development of railway in which Paxton was also involved, day-trippers from all over the country.

It was the Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition in 1851, that secured Paxton’s fame. His design, initially doodled on a piece of blotting paper was the architectural triumph of its time. Two thousand men worked for eight months to complete it. It was six times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral, enclosed a space of eighteen acres, and entertained six million visitors. By the time of his death fourteen years later, ‘the busiest man in England’ according to Dickens, was friends with Brunel and Stephenson and in constant demand to design public parks and gardens. One of his last, seemingly most eccentric projects was for a great Boulevard under glass, a crystal arcade that would connect all of the main railway termini in London.

Drawing on thousands of Paxton’s personal letters, Kate Colquhoun’s remarkable biography is a compelling story of a man who typifies the Victorian ideal of self improvement and a touching portrait of one of that era’s greatest heroes.

307 pages paperback 20 Illustrations