Orangery or Conservatory, you don’t need green fingers to succumb to the charms of a glasshouse, says Chris Yeo.
Spring is here. The clocks have leapt forward and it’s about now that every garden lover starts getting cabin fever. There is only so much peering at snowdrops and admiring frosted leaves one can do before the desire to start living life alfresco sets in. We head outdoors, ready to be captivated by Spring’s sweet breath and then, straightaway, turnaround and head back indoors. It’s just too cold! The turning of the seasonal wheel seems to have been lost on the English weather of late. What with the Beast from the East and the Pest from the West, any attempt to enjoy the outdoor life is likely to be put off by a carpeting of snow and freezing temperatures. Should we be surprised? For a country on the same latitude as Russia, our love affair with the outdoors might be considered more a triumph of optimism over reality. So just how are we supposed to uphold our claim to be a nation of gardeners when our weather is so often less than clement? You could try houseplants but, quite honestly, who wants to cope with a jungle in the sitting room, especially when it involves having to play handmaiden of the leaf shine lotion to a collection of potted dust magnets? Personally, I’ve always liked the halfway house of, to use an old-fashioned word, the glasshouse. After all, who does not long for the warmth of the sun during the darkest days of January, or dream of the tropics in the midst of a frigid February? The attraction of a conservatory or orangery is more than merely bringing the outside inside. It’s an oasis of tranquillity, a space to indulge a passion for dahlias or date palms, and one of the best places on earth to enjoy a glass of something chilled when the temperature outside is a bit too chilly. Glasshouses may do nothing to end a long winter, but, as has been the case for centuries, they bring the scents and sense of the outdoors in, despite the weather.
Conservatory lovers have Tiberius Caesar, Rome’s second emperor from 14 to 37 AD, to thank for the invention of the original glasshouse. He insisted that his favourite fruits be available all year round and set his gardeners to work, clothing cold frames with mica to capture sunlight. The earliest known glasshouses appeared in England in the 17th century, but not to designs that would be familiar to us today. At that time they were merely stone structures with more glazing in them than the buildings nearby and were designed to protect shrubs such as myrtle and bay from the worst of the winter cold.
People who live in glasshouses should refrain from throwing stones. They should also brush up on their etymology; is it a conservatory or an orangery? ‘Orangery' certainly sounds like the smarter option, but is there really much of a difference? Well, yes. An orangery looks distinctly different from a conservatory. Typically, its walls, pillars and window frames are more substantial than those of a conventional conservatory. The name reflects their original purpose, which was to protect citrus trees that would be raised in tubs and introduced into the building during early autumn. The origins of the orangery are to be found in Renaissance Italy but it was the growing taste for oranges and other citrus fruits amongst the wealthy of northern Europe that saw their popularity blossom. Fittingly, it was William III – Prince of Orange – who is credited with introducing them to Britain, when he became King in 1689. Initially exclusively built and owned by Royalty and aristocracy, orangeries quickly became a vital ingredient of any garden of taste – a space where horticulture rubbed shoulders with high fashion. People suddenly wanted to spend more time in their plant-housing space and orangeries started to become person as well as plant-friendly. It would not be unusual for plants to be removed during the hotter summer months and the area to be used for social occasions, parties and tea-drinking. Often, designed to imitate Greek or Roman temples, originally, orangeries were built as extensions on large buildings, but as fashions changed, it soon became popular to have them separate from the main house.
When the term ‘conservatory’ was initially coined, like the orangery, it referred to stand-alone structures that were often used to house exotic plants. Gradually the name became attached to buildings which, unlike orangeries, were more glass than wall and - here’s the crucial difference - were more likely to be part of the main house. A combination of the hefty window tax introduced in 1696, and the glass tax introduced in 1746, made even the smallest conservatory remarkable and put glasshouses far beyond the reach of the average country squire. To the majority of the population, it was an object of awe and signified prestige, wealth and power – the Georgian equivalent of a private jet, if you like, but things were about to change. By the 1840s both the glass and window taxes were abolished; making glasshouses affordable to a greater percentage of the population. Not only that, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the cost of making glass dropped dramatically. New technologies of making plate glass rather than blown glass, resulted in larger, cheaper panes, and coincided with the emergence of cast iron, which was strong enough to carry larger expanses of glass. It was the perfect technological storm and the glasshouse grew and grew, not just in popularity but also size. It also coincided with the introduction of plants from all over the empire collected by a new breed of plant hunters. Travellers and merchants would return from afar with specimens not previously seen in this country. They brought in plants that we now regard as commonplace - such as orchids, lilies and lupins - but back then were heralded as exotic beauties.
The Victorian period was the Golden Age of the glasshouse. This was largely down to one man, Joseph Paxton, a man who did for the glasshouse what Isambard Kingdom Brunel did for railways and suspension bridges. Paxton was the very image of the Victorian polymath, a gardener, engineer, architect, magazine editor, landscape designer and, in his spare time, a Member of Parliament. He blazed a trail in glass architecture. Between 1836 and 1841 he built the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, at the time the large glass building in the world. Shaped like a tent, it was 277 feet long, 67 feet high and covered ¾ of an acre. 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 Queen Victoria was driven through, it was lit with twelve thousand lamps. Even she was amused, noting in her diary that it was ‘the most stupendous and extraordinary creation imaginable’. The Great Conservatory inspired the construction of conservatories worldwide but it was only the beginning for Paxton. The following decade he was commissioned to design and build Crystal Palace in London – a global symbol of Victorian Britain’s industrial prowess – that covered 19 acres and required 293,635 panes of glass. The Crystal Palace helped popularise the use of glass as a building material, and Victorian Britain went glasshouse mad with homes sprouting conservatories of all shapes and sizes as a result of their owners being wowed by Paxton’s epic creation.
The First World War was a major blow to the glasshouse. Many gardening staff left to fight and didn’t return. Homeowners rarely had the labour or money for their upkeep, and many fell into dereliction. Even Joseph Paxton’s Great Conservatory was demolished in 1920 and the Crystal Palace – on its knees financially - went up in flames in 1936. But it isn’t all a tale of woe. Many of those that did survive have been lovingly restored and today the glasshouse – whether orangery or conservatory – is a proud feature of homes great and small, enabling lovers of nature to enjoy the feel of the garden all year-round.
Image credits: 1-2 Author’s own
Remaining; Chatsworth House Trust