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4.2 out of 5 stars
A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton
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on 19 October 2017
Joseph Paxton (1803–65), the seventh son and last of the nine children of a farm labourer, rose to fame and fortune as the long-serving head gardener – actually the architect and manager of the gardens – at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. He was a great favourite and friend of the sixth Duke of Devonshire, who owned Chatsworth, and together they planned and Paxton built a garden that housed specimens and attracted visitors from across the world. Paxton had a great flair for architecture – though professional architects of the day refused to number him in their company – and a genius with glasshouses and what could be grown in them. His greatest achievement was his design for the Crystal Palace, built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and later moved to a new site in Sydenham and much extended. Paxton was courted by royalty and had a tremendous number of commissions, from both Britain and overseas, to design gardens, homes and parks. He was knighted, became a member of Parliament, was active on a number of important committees, and throughout his life had a reputation for great courtesy and geniality.
A Thing in Disguise is Kate Colquhoun’s first book. Well written and easy to read, it includes two sections of colour photographs and a number of other illustrations, including a plan of the garden at Chatsworth. It ends somewhat abruptly with details of Paxton’s funeral; it would have been good to have included more on what happened thereafter to Paxton’s immediate family, the legacy he left in terms of completed work and principles of architecture and garden design, and how his reputation has waxed and/or waned since his death. It is, nonetheless, a very good biography and most interesting throughout -- even for a non-gardener!.
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on 13 November 2017
The worst thing, I find, is the text is tiny - and I mean very tiny. This makes the book hard to read and difficult to follow. The publisher was careless to use such a small font.
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on 2 February 2016
This is a really fascinating book; well researched and just and excellent read about an amazing individual. I've recommended it to others who have been equally enthusiastic about it.
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on 13 February 2016
as described
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on 16 January 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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on 22 January 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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on 16 February 2013
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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on 24 June 2010
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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on 2 August 2008
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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on 6 June 2013
As a garden designer, and having just visited Chatsworth for the first time recently, I found this a fascinating read. Beautifully written, Kate has really brought Joseph Paxton to life with his extraordinary achievements and kindly disposition. I was captivated throughout the book. It was particularly interesting to be able to relate the work he had done at Chatsworth to the current gardens and water features in particular the Emporer's fountain, the aqueduct, the remains of the 'Great Stove' and the pinetum. An enjoyable read throughout!
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