It is unfortunate that the first really substantial house that Sir Joseph Paxton built was knocked down in the early 1960s, for today, I suspect, it would be greatly valued as an early example of the architectural talents of this highly talented man.
It was built for himself, was grade II listed, but, when it became infested with dry rot and bedevilled the lack of a suitable role, it was still the era when all the owner of a listed building had to do, was to notify the Local Authority and the Ministry of Works, that he intended to demolish; no consents then had to be sought.
Readers of this magazine will not need reminding that Paxton was born the son of a tenant farmer at Milton Bryant, Bedfordshire, on 3rd August 1803. He learned the gentle art of gardening under his elder brother, who was head gardener at Wimbledon House, going on to work at Chiswick horticultural gardens, which adjoined those of Chiswick House, then still owned by the Dukes of Devonshire, and hence he came to the attention of the 6th (“Bachelor”) Duke. This celebrated individual was known amongst his family and friends as Hart, from the courtesy title he bore until his succession in 1811 (Marquess of Hartington), bestowed originally upon him by his mother, the unforgettable Georgiana.
From May 1826, the young Paxton was gardener at Chatsworth to the Duke, moving in to the modest, but then fairly new stone built house, near the entrance to the kitchen garden, on the east side of the Baslow Road at Edensor. In 1827 he married Sarah Bown, a local girl descended from a family of moderately competent Matlock clockmakers of the previous century and descended from a blacksmith, recorded in the 16th century. Paxton swiftly rose in the Duke’s esteem to become, eventually, agent for the estate.
In 1840, he built, in association with the Duke’s then architect Decimus Burton, the “Great Stove”, a cast iron and glass building of extraordinary ingenuity, having already displaced Burton in the designing of the new village of Edensor from 1838. He also designed Burton Closes at Bakewell, for the Allcards (whom he met in his role as railway company director and friend of George Hudson of York, the ill-starred “Railway King”), and his career culminated in the sensational Crystal Palace – a clear architectural offspring of the Great Stove – and its successful transplantation to Sydenham Hill. He was knighted in 1851 and elected Liberal MP for Coventry in 1854, dying at Rocklands, Sydenham, 8th June 1865.
As a follow-on from the development of the new Edensor, Paxton was allowed by the Duke to aggrandise his cottage to make a suitable new residence for himself and his family. Consequently, between 1842 and 1847 he completely transformed it, with John Robertson – once draughtsman to John Claudius Loudon and who worked with him on Derby Arboretum – as his assistant, as with the building of the new Edensor itself. Using the same local millstone grit sandstone as Chatsworth, he built a robustly detailed ashlar villa, centered on a four-stage Italianate tower, which owed a little to Nash, a little to Thomas Cubitt and thus, perhaps to Prince Albert’s then celebrated Isle of Wight mini-palace, Osborne, building at the same time, a little to Loudon and something, too, to Thomas Hope’s Deepdene near Dorking.
The tower, with its pyramidal roof, stood in the centre of the south front, with a three stage tower-like feature attached to its north side, its roof marrying rather unhappily with its taller twin, a visible consequence of Paxton’s architectural inexperience. The stages were marked by banding, with rusticated pilasters (lesnes) running up the angles to the third stage, which boasted two narrow round-headed lights, the fourth stage having triple windows of this type between plain pilasters.
To the right of the tower ran a three bay two storey range to the east with a garden entrance set asymmetrically in a loggia. Behind, at right angles, ran a longer but basically similar range, the single storey entrance being extended from the angle between the two. To the left of the tower was the end bay of a third two storey range, itself embellished with a canted bay, with yet another two bay wing beyond. The gable ends were turned into broken pediments by the returns of the eaves bracket cornices on the longer sides of each range; there were quoins and the fenestration was embellished with entablatures with the odd ground floor pediment thrown in. The roofs were slated and were set off by tall paired stacks with a narrow tall arch separating them, round headed above an impost band.
The interiors relied on the fine proportion of the rooms for their grandeur rather than elaborate stucco decoration which was kept to a minimum. In its overall detailing, the house echoed the style of his slightly later and much more conveniently sized Dunsa House nearby which, happily, survives.
The house was finished in 1847, but in 1851, Paxton, no doubt influenced by his success with the Crystal Palace and flushed with his knighthood, built on another wing, leaving it really a quite substantial house, the grounds artfully landscaped as only Paxton knew how. By this time too, he was also the Duke’s assistant auditor, as well as his confidant, trusted advisor and friend and Hart rewarded him, not with the freehold of the land upon which it stood, but the right to bestow his open lease upon whomsoever he wished.
Nevertheless, the Paxtons rarely thereafter lived in Barbrook (named after the adjacent stream), parliamentary and Crystal Palace related business keeping Joseph in London, but we know that Lady Paxton sorely missed it, and returned there on his death. When she died in 1871 she was interred beside him and two of their numerous children in Edensor churchyard, whereupon the house reverted to the 7th Duke.
It was rather too large for most purposes, and was consequently divided into two very spacious residences, Martin Gilson MVO, JP, the long-serving agent of the time occupying one half, until his retirement around the time of the Great War. His successor, the Irish grandee Ulick Burke though, elected to reside in Edensor House, a more convenient classical villa in the village, designed by Decimus Burton. But over the following 40 odd years, it became increasingly a white elephant to the estate, and ended up becoming what we might today call a storage facility, hence its eventual demolition some fifty or so years ago.
While it was never a country house in the strict term, having no estate to support it, and being erected on the Duke’s land, it was without doubt the finest Italianate house in Derbyshire of its date. Paxton used it like a country seat, retaining his suburban villa at Sydenham on the southern edge of London like any titled grandee of the time. The fact that its celebrated architect lived there under his own roof would make it a precious survival today, of course, in addition to which a house like that would probably be a lucrative rental income-stream for the Chatsworth Estate. And whilst the estate would never countenance such a house being sold off had it survived, today an organisation like the Landmark Trust would probably have been able to give it a viable use.