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A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton [Paperback]

Kate Colquhoun
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
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Book Description

11 Sep 2009

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

In the nineteenth century, which witnessed a revolution in horticulture and 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 into the greatest garden in England. Visitors there were astonished by the enormous glasshouses 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 the railway in which Paxton was also involved, daytrippers 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 18 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 Stevenson and in constant demand to design public parks and gardens. His last, seemingly most eccentric project was for a Great Boulevard under glass, a crystal arcade that would connect all the main railway termini in London.

Drawing on exclusive access to Paxton's personal letters, Kate Colquhouns'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 great heroes.

Frequently Bought Together

A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton + The Busiest Man in England: The Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect, and Victorian Visionary + The Crystal Palace: A Portrait of Victorian Enterprise
Price For All Three: 45.34

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; New Ed edition (11 Sep 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007143540
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007143542
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 298,196 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Kate Colquhoun's previous non-fiction titles were shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize 2004 and longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2003. Her most recent book Mr Briggs' Hat was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA Daggers: Non-fiction Prize. As well as writing for several newspapers and magazines, she appears regularly on national radio and television. She lives in London with her two sons.

Product Description


'Energetic, irresistible, a marvellously invigorating tale.' Francis Wheen, Observer Books of the Year.

‘A superb biography … Colquhoun's elegantly illustrated, admirably succinct biography is written with true Paxtonian verve. Praise comes no higher.'John Carey, Sunday Times

'Colquhoun's picture is affectionate, thorough and compulsively readable.' Observer

‘Kate Colquhoun should have a bestseller on her hands.' Cressida Connolly, Saturday Telegraph

'Kate Colquhoun has written an exemplary life of this important and attractive personality. Hopefully this is the first of many.' Aileen Reid, Sunday Telegraph

‘Colquhoun’s sympathetic biography is at its most revealing (indeed, its most moving) in its analysis of the friendship between duke and gardener, two like minds meeting despite the barriers of class and convention.' Sunday Times

From the Publisher

Head Gardener at Chatsworth, designer of the famous Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton was, according to Dickens, 'the busiest man in all England'. Yet his remarkable life story has never been told, until now. Kate Colquhoun's compelling biography reveals how, against all odds, one man rose to become the most influential horticulturalist and innovative architect of his era.

Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Coming from a Different Angle 16 Jan 2006
I am not a horticulturist and had the book bought for me as a Christmas present from a brother. I am however from the Crystal Palace area, my parents saw the Palace fire from their home and I am a fan of the football team (stamped on my forehead at birth!).
The book is a delight and is an excellent insight to the Victorian era and most particularly the Victorian entrenpreneurs as in essence that is exactly what Paxton was with his publishing, public park design company, financial investments into new fangled railway lines, and his self promotion.
Further the details on Chatsworth and his relationship with the Duke of Devonshire were both detailed and again of great interest regarding the Victorian psyche of master and servant (and also how each treated thier womenfolk!). It is interesting to note Paxton had a son who went off the rails with debauchery and drink (plus ca change!).
Highly commended to horticultursts and those interested in social history and most importantly to those who just like a good read.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly readable 22 Jan 2005
I wanted this book because I'm a trainee garden designer but also because it holds local interest for me as I spend a lot of time in Crystal Palace - and Joseph Paxton designed the original Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. I have to confess I found the first chapter or so a little tough - I didn't feel that the facts and dates gelled properly but after that I became throughly addicted. if your training in the horticultural sector this is a must - it's written so well that it's a delight and it makes a (perhaps for some) dry subject jump out of the page. I recommend this title
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspirational, lucid and compelling 16 Feb 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Elegantly written, this biography is of a man of intimidating imagination and energy, but who remains warm, human and accessible throughout. A marvellous read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A really fascinating read 12 Jun 2012
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I really enjoyed this book. It's a gripping story about a hugely talented, driven and influential man and his work as a gardener and designer that led to him designing The Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition. I live near Crystal Palace (where it ended up) and bought the book to read on a visit to Derbyshire, which included a day at Chatsworth, where he was head gardener and developed his ideas. If you're at all interested in the Victorian Age, gardens, design/architecture or Chatsworth you should enjoy it. I've given it 4 stars because there were times I wanted the author to run with the drama rather than be quite so cool. Having said that, it was very special to sit in the arboretum Paxton planted and read this book. Many thanks to the author.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Great Exhibit 24 Jun 2010
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This book follows the career of Joseph Paxton from head gardener at Chatsworth to his design for the Great Exhibition, and the later reconstruction of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. It treads a familiar path well known to historians, but reveals little new. And there is much more that could be revealed, especially the many concerns about the structural stability of his design. Cast iron features strongly in his work, but was already well known for its brittle behaviour in tension. Presumably this is why he or others insisted on rigourous testing of the cast iron girders before installation. There were also concerns about high winds and their effects on such a large structure, concerns which led to extra reinforcing elements such as cross-bracing to be adopted within the structure. But yet a part was blown down in 1861 at Sydenham in a storm, so maybe Paxton should have heeded the early warnings? It is a fascinating story of a humble gardenere thrust into the limelight, but there are hidden details which are still to be revealed, especially his relations with Fox and Henderson, as well as Brunel and Stephenson.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The hardest working man in Victorian England 2 Aug 2008
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This is one of those rare but exciting biographies that reads like a novel and is gripping all the way through. Kate Colquhoun really knows her material and the diversions always add to the story.

Faults are that it reads like hagiography at times and even by Victorian standards Paxton treated his family appallingly and reaped what he sowed in his wayward son.

But for the story of the design of the Crystal Palace and the foundations of modern horticulture, this can't be beaten.
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