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History of the Conservatory

Hardwood Conservatories

History of the ConservatoryThe word conservatory is derived from the Italian “conservato” (stored or preserved) and Latin “ory” – a place for – and was originally used to describe a non–glazed structure used for storing food. Later the word was used to describe glazed structures for conserving, or protecting, plants from cold weather.

Today conservatories are generally understood to be structures connected to houses, but the buildings discussed here would be better understood by us as glasshouses or greenhouses. We do not know when the transition of the word conservatory to its modern meaning occurred, but we are still researching!

John Evelyn, who was a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, wrote about the design of a conservatory in his Elysium Britannicum which he began in 1650. This had “Corinthian capitals and wreathed columns.” Whether this was drawn from his imagination or if he was inspired by one he had seen, we do not know.

The earliest known conservatories date from the 17th century, but not to designs that would be familiar to us as a conservatory today. At that time they were merely stone structures with more glazing in them than the buildings they were connected to. They were used by the scientific community, nobility and the landed gentry to protect plants, especially those that they had collected on their European tours and wished to grow back in the colder climate of England. Plants and seeds were also being collected by explorers further afield in Australia and South America and needed protection when they were grown in the UK.

Possibly the first conservatory in Britain was constructed in the Oxford Botanic Garden, another was built soon after in the Chelsea Physic Garden.

John Nash designed four conservatories for Buckingham Palace in 1825. But during remodelling of the Palace under William IV and the architect Edward Blore, Nash’s replacement, they were moved and one of these went to Kew in 1836. This became known as the Architectural Conservatory and is the oldest of the 19th Century glasshouses still standing at Kew today.

There are literary mentions of conservatories at this time so the writers and the readers were aware of them. In the Jane Austin novel Emma written in 1814; Mrs Churchill, a very grand lady, is referred to by Mr Weston saying, “In Frank’s last letter she complained, he said, of being too weak to get into her conservatory without having both his arm and his uncle’s!”

It wasn’t until later in the 19th Century that conservatories became more popular. This was due to several factors. Until 1845 there was a tax in England on glass that was levied on the weight of the glass, so panes were thin.

What’s more, in the mid–19th century, wrought iron was expensive. Cast iron was mass-produced and much cheaper, but it was weak in tension and only suitable wherever loads were carried in compression, such as columns. Wrought iron was used in tension and a prime example of this is in the roof of a conservatory. But in 1856 Henry Bessemer invented the Bessemer converter, which enabled steel to be produced more cheaply than before. Unlike wrought iron, steel contains no slag and has a higher carbon content. As a result it was harder, even better in tension and therefore suitable for the roof of a conservatory.

Sir Joseph Paxton, (1801–65), was the Duke of Devonshire’s gardens superintendent, his iron-framed conservatory at Chatsworth House was built between 1836 and 1841 and covered three–quarters of an acre – at the time it was the largest glass building in the world – shaped like a tent and 277ft long and 67ft high. The largest sheet glass generally available then was three feet long but Robert Chance, a noted glassmaker of the time, managed to produce four–foot sheets for Paxton’s benefit.

Eight boilers heated the conservatory through seven miles of iron pipe and it cost over £30,000 to build. There was a central carriageway and when the Queen Victoria was driven through, it was lit with twelve thousand lamps. She noted in her diary in 1842 that it is ‘the most stupendous and extraordinary creation imaginable’.

Unfortunately, the Great Conservatory was demolished in 1920 it had needed ten men to run it and huge quantities of coal to heat. During the Great War, the gardeners had gone off to fight and coal had not been available for non-essential purposes, so all the plants had died.

However, the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth became Paxton’s model for the Crystal Palace, the story of whish is as follows. On 11th June 1850 Paxto took the train to London. There at a meeting of the Board of the Midland Railway, he sketched out on a piece of blotting paper his plan for the Crystal Palace that he planned to build for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Twenty–four hours later Paxton had sold his idea to Prince Albert, and commissioned Fox, Henderson & Co. a firm of contractors from Smethwick to build his great glass palace. By 19th June his drawings were complete and Fox Henderson had calculated the cost of the ironwork and every square foot of glass. 24–hours later Paxton met Robert Stephenson, the famous railway engineer, who was a Commissioner for the Great Exhibition. Paxton showed him his scheme and immediately secured his support.

“Nothing can stand against my plans”, Paxton wrote in jubilation, “everybody likes them”.

Erected in 22 weeks the Crystal Palace covered 19 acres, at the time this was the largest enclosed space on earth. It was five times as long as the Palm House in Kew (no doubt by design 1,851ft long), higher than Westminster Abbey and contained 293,635 panes of glass.

With over 6 million visitors, it was a major advertisement for glazed structures and thus exerted an influence on the popularity of conservatories during the latter part of Victoria’s reign and into the Edwardian era. Paxton received his knighthood from Queen Victoria for his design of the building.

Inspired by the Chatsworth Conservatory and before the building of the Crystal Palace, the Palm House at Kew was built (1844–48) by Richard Turner to Decimus Burton’s design, it is the world’s most important surviving Victorian glass and iron structure and is 363ft long, 100ft wide and rises to a height of 66ft.

Conservatories again enter literature at this time. In the Oscar Wilde novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” first published in 1890, we find, “A week later Dorian Gray was sitting in the conservatory at Selby Royal, talking to the pretty Duchess of Monmouth, who with her husband, a jaded–looking man of sixty, was amongst his guests.”

In his play “An Ideal Husband” first produced in 1895, a conservatory is where off–scene action takes place in Act 4.

Finally, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel Duet written in 1899 there is a lovely quote which possibly indicates the pretentiousness of owning a conservatory at this time, “The Lindens is the name, and it is on the Maybury Road…Such a nice little lawn in front, and garden behind. A conservatory, if you please, dining–room and drawing–room.”

Perhaps it was the Great War that put a temporary end to the popularity of the conservatory. Many of them would have been cold, draughty places in the winter with the quality of sealing and glazing available at the time and inadequate insulation would also have made them expensive to heat.

Certainly, by the 1920s and 30’s, cast iron conservatories built in the Victorian era would have succumbed to frost damage and rust. But over the last 40 years there has been a renaissance in their popularity as construction problems have been overcome and a new wave of technology such as double–glazing, self–cleaning glass and solar glass have emerged to make them easy to maintain and heat. Under floor heating, without huge quantities of coal and miles of pipe, can also be installed using electric heating that costs just pennies run. Paxton and the Duke of Devonshire would be jealous!

©Richmond Oak Conservatories Ltd. You are welcome to use this article for research, but please acknowledge your source with a link back to the home page of our conservatory site in any published material.

If this history has interested you in installing a conservatory, take a look at our Gallery of Conservatory or our page on the choice of timber for Hardwood conservatories

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Conservatory Photos from Richmond Oak Conservatories Limited