‘Gardens under Glass’: The Victorian Conservatory

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After decades of destruction and neglect, recent years have seen the restoration of some wonderful Victorian conservatories in our great gardens – the most recent, and well-reported, being the magnificent Temperate House at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which re-opened last year after restoration costing some £41 million.  Conservatories that still remain from their heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries are expensive to maintain, and many gardens and estates have to continually raise funds for their up-keep, an example being the range of Foster & Pearson glasshouses at West Dean Gardens in Sussex which I visited recently.  (According to The Oxford Companion to Gardens the term ‘conservatory’ is generally interchangeable with glasshouse, greenhouse, orangery, palm house or winter garden, so I’ll use the term conservatory throughout.)

During the Victorian period, smaller, domestic conservatories also became hugely popular due to advances in manufacturing processes, the repeal of glass taxes, and the huge influence of Joseph Paxton’s ‘Crystal Palace’ which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Also, around this time, the increasingly affluent middle classes began to move out of our over-crowded towns and cities to newly created leafy suburbs, where a conservatory was the fashionable ‘must-have’ ornamentation for their villas and gardens.

And out in those suburbs, ‘hands-on’ amateurs armed with numerous books, journals, magazines, and even cheap weekly gardening papers, could indulge their love of gardening.  Reams of advice was available with authors such as Shirley Hibberd (1825-1890), the editor of Amateur Gardening, coining the phrase ‘gardens under glass’ to describe conservatories and the huge variety of plants grown in them.  Two of Hibberd’s books, New and Rare Beautiful- Leaved Plants (1869) and The Amateur’s Greenhouse and Conservatory (1873) are available on-line.  Magazines such as the Gardeners’ Chronicle and The Garden also produced articles and advice, answered readers’ questions, and carried pages of advertisements from manufacturers of everything from entire ‘off-the-peg’ conservatories to ancillary products.  The Victorian passion for decoration was also well catered for with mass-produced moulded metal accoutrements such as cast-iron furniture, patterned grills for hot-water pipes, twisted, grooved or garlanded supporting columns, curling brackets for flower baskets, fountains and statues.  Further decorations, such as glazed flower pots and vases, and elegant etageres, were also popular, while books such as Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (1870) were on hand to guide and advise on other domestic ornamental additions, such as aviaries, aquariums, fern cases and floral arrangements.  This book has particularly beautiful illustrations and is worth a look here

The Victorian conservatory was certainly as crammed full of plants, as their drawing rooms were crammed full of furniture.  The principal purpose of the conservatory being to display exotic and colourful plants and flowers: often newly introduced exotics or collections of beautiful orchids, strange pitcher plants (particularly fascinating to the Victorians), or fashionable ferns, while protecting them from the vagaries of the British climate.  Ordinary common or garden staples of the flowerbed were also added as the aim was, Hibberd wrote, to render the “covered garden attractive and interesting at all seasons”.  And due to the work of botanic institutions, large estates, seed and nursery-men, and professional and amateur plant-hunters, the Victorians had a constant supply of new and exciting plants arriving from all over the globe, and the fashion for conservatories drove the market for ever more exotic plants.  One early book, John Loudon’s The Green-House Companion (1824) recommended larger-growing genera such as camellias, banksias and acacias, while Hibberd’s books described ornamental-leaved plants such as begonias, caladiums, palms and yuccas. 

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Often attached to the drawing room, the conservatory functioned as an extra room for recreation and play but, above all, enabled owners to show-off their plants – flowers in borders or pots, climbers trained on wires or hanging from the roof in what John Loudon (1783-1843) termed, ‘fanciful festoons’, often with pools and fountains.  During the chillier months, the conservatory was also an ideal venue for that very English pastime of eating cucumber sandwiches and drinking tea; while its exotic atmosphere created a sensuous haven in which to escape the strict social conventions of the Victorian home for conversations about marriage or affairs of the heart, as depicted in James Tissot’s painting, In the Conservatory.

Conservatories were usually produced to a few basic shapes which could then be adapted to suit customers’ requirements, and this basic formula changed little between 1850 and 1920.  Major manufacturers of the period such as Messenger & Co., and Foster & Pearson produced brochures containing suggested designs and practical advice, while also providing cheaper alternatives for those of lesser means such as small greenhouses, lean-to conservatories or miniature window-cases.  The Chelmsford firm of Crompton & F.A. Fawkes Limited supplied conservatories around the country and Frank Fawkes, one of the partners, wrote Horticultural Buildings (1886) which included architectural, horticultural, and even legal information for the conservatory owner here

The popularity of the conservatory continued into the early 20th century but, hastened by the 1st World War and the following depression, it began to wane as families suffered financially and garden staffs were seriously depleted.  Many conservatories were scrapped or destroyed to cut costs; even Paxton’s Great Conservatory at Chatsworth was deliberately blown up in 1920, whilst others were allowed to fall into ruin.  The conservatory manufacturing companies that had enjoyed over 60 years of success, diversified or closed. 

However, as mentioned at the beginning, it’s not all doom and gloom for the conservatory. As a few original conservatories and glasshouses have been rescued and restored, there has also been somewhat of a renaissance in the popularity of the domestic conservatory due to new construction techniques and technologies.  A modern ‘Victorian-style’ conservatory is now a popular addition to our homes, often adding financial value.  Although I think it’s a shame that they are generally treated as an extra room, rather than filled with exotic plants and flowers! 

Apart from the books already mentioned, see The Glasshouse, John Hix (1996) and A History of Greenhouses, Orangeries and Conservatories, May Woods & Warren Arete Swartz (1990).  For anyone interested in how conservatory gardening was viewed as a suitable pastime for ladies, see Every Lady’s Guide to her own Greenhouse, Hothouse & Conservatory (1851) by an author only identified as ‘A Lady’ – here

Examples of restored Foster & Pearson glasshouses can be seen at West Dean Gardens and The Walled Nursery, both in Sussex.  For more information on the Essex firm of Crompton & Fawkes, see Gardens Trust blog here which also discusses the conservatory at Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire, their only known conservatory still to exist.  The story of its restoration can be seen here