The Charms of a Glasshouse

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

Socialism and scatter cushions

He was the creator of era-defining textiles, a writer whose ground breaking ideas forever changed how we think about our homes and, according to a recent study, a peddler of poisonous wallpaper.  “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo asks “Will the real William Morris please stand up?”

When William Morris (1834-1896) died at the age of sixty-two, his physician declared that the cause was "simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men." We know him best for his easy-on-the-eye textiles with their scrolling leaves and biscuit cutter birds. The designer of patterns such as Willow Bough and Strawberry Thief, his is the face that launched a thousand National Trust tea towels. We probably think that that’s all there is to know about Morris: move along, nothing more to see here, but we’d be wrong. This multi-faceted man was at one time or another (and sometimes simultaneously) a designer and manufacturer of furniture, wallpaper and fabrics, stained glass, and tapestries; an accomplished weaver; successful businessman; a pioneering preservationist; an active Socialist and social reformer; a successful poet and novelist; and in his last years, the founder of the Kelmscott Press. We see him in photographs with tousled hair and wild, unkempt beard; part Byron, part Marx. His passionate belief that everyone should surround themselves with beauty revolutionised the way we think about our homes and his influence went well beyond these shores. If these days he’s known as a pattern designer in his own lifetime he was actually better known for his writing. Morris was a revolutionary force in Victorian Britain – the original Angry Young Man whose rages against the shortcomings and injustices of the world changed the fashions and ideologies of the era but is life was filled with paradoxes. He was obsessed with the medieval,  but he also had a socialist vision of the future. He’s considered by many to be the spiritual Godfather of modern Socialism and a champion of worker rights yet he died a multi-millionaire and was a part owner of the world’s largest arsenic mine.  Will the real William Morris please stand up?

Morris was born in Walthamstow, east London in 1834. The financial success of his broker father led to the family moving in 1840 to Woodford hall, a large house in rural Essex, as well as providing young William with an inheritance large enough to mean he would never have to concern himself with the tedious business of earning an income. Morris enjoyed an idyllic childhood growing up in the countryside, exploring local parkland and churches and immersing himself in the novels of Walter Scott, helping him develop an affinity with the natural world and historical romance. William was a privileged boy, but had a mind of his own. He a was forced to leave Marlborough College in 1851 following a “rebellion” but still made it to Exeter College, Oxford in 1853. He first planned to become a clergyman but, following a trip to northern France and inspired by the gothic architecture he saw, opted for architecture. Morris was a rebel by nature and one, very much, with a cause: ugliness. We all know his famous dictum Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. For Morris this was nothing short of a battle cry against poor taste. What started him on his crusade was what he saw as the sheer tackiness of the Great Exhibition in 1851. This colossal event, staged in the specially built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, had been intended to display the best of British manufacturing, a dazzling showcase for the Workshop of the World. For Morris it was neo-Renaissance, neo-everything nightmare of poor design and shabby art. Tales of the teenage Morris’s visit to the Crystal Palace are legion and range from the strange to the ridiculous – my favourite being that Morris was so appalled by the poor taste on show that he staggered from the building and was sick in the bushes.

For Morris shoddiness was a punishable offence; ‘Shoddy is King’ he railed, ‘From the statesman to the shoemaker, everything is shoddy’. From that point on he dedicated his life to creating useful and beautiful objects for the modern home.

While working in Oxford Morris had a chance meeting with a local stableman's daughter, Jane Burden. Consciously flouting the rules of class, Morris married Jane in 1859. Morris and Jane moved into Red House, their home in rural Kent, the following year. Morris wanted his home to be a ‘small palace of art’ Unhappy with what was on offer commercially, spent the next two years furnishing and decorating the interior with help from members of their artistic circle. And what friends: Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabrielle Rosetti, Ford Maddox Brown. As George Martin was to the Beatles, so Morris was to the Pre-Raphaelites; the unofficial eighth member. It was at Red House that Morris began to find his forte - he was, in truth, an abysmal architect and a lousy painter, but he had an affinity with interiors. At heart, he was a pattern-maker, taking his inspiration from the English countryside to create the patterns that made him famous.  Having decided to branch into textiles, he apprenticed himself to a dyer's workshop in order to "learn the practice of dying at every pore" even going as far as grinding his own pigments. Over the course of two decades Morris produced over 600 chintzes, woven textiles and hand-blocked wallpapers. They were distinctive for their soft, flat colours, their stylised natural forms, their symmetry and their sense of order. His patterns were revolutionary at the time, and quite at odds with prevailing mainstream fashion.

Having gained a taste for interiors, and the experience of 'joy in collective labour', Morris and his friends decided in 1861 to set up their own mega-design partnership: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, later re-named Morris and Company, but nicknamed ‘The Firm’ by William.  It was virtually a Pre-Raphaelite co-operative with £1 share contributions from Burne-Jones, Rosetti and Brown. From its London headquarters the Firm issued a selection of carefully crafted household items, painted furniture, metalwork, pottery, carpets and cushions. All were guaranteed to have been created by an expert hand using artisanal – the word still meant something – methods.

Morris was a radical thinker of his day;  a prolific poet, author, publisher, campaigner and socialist reformer; “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization”, he said.  By the 1860s skilled workmanship was being replaced by machines. He was a dedicated socialist, and wrote passionately about the growing gap between rich and poor, which had been intensely accelerated by industrialisation. Morris saw salvation in a return to a medieval craft-based society, one where happy, contended workers would produce objects with integrity. If this is sounding at all familiar we need only look to the nearest artisan hipster baker or be-whiskered craft brewer. Although Morris preached passionately for the return of the medieval craft ethic, his objection was – contrary to what you’re likely to read elsewhere - not so much to machine production as to poor workmanship. He loathed mass-production but understood its place in society. In fact his first registered design was a trellis of African marigolds for machine-made linoleum. William Morris lino, who would have guessed?

The most ironic aspect of Morris’s aims was that, although he aimed to make good design available to all (‘I do not want art for the few, any more than freedom for the few…’), ultimately his own furnishings — made painstakingly by hand using the best natural materials — were typically too expensive for anyone but the wealthy industrialists Morris hated.

Morris was a founding father of the Socialist movement and a champion of workers’ rights. He   campaigned against many things, banning arsenic in wallpaper was not one of them. Arsenic was a major component in wallpaper manufacture and by the 1870s, when Morris was at the height of his fame, its ill effects were becoming well-known. Morris  inherited his fortune from an arsenic mine in which he still held stock for a number of years. By the 1870s, the Morris family’s Devon mine was reportedly producing over half the world’s supply of arsenic. And while he did ultimately divest his interests in the company, questions on Morris’s apparent hypocrisy—and why he never actually visited these notoriously bad workplaces—casts something of a shadow over his right-on credentials.

Happily, this is the Lorfords blog, so we can leave the politics at the door. In design terms William Morris was a true visionary whose influence was felt well-beyond his own lifetime. With his hands-on philosophy he pioneered the idea of the artist-craftsman and his designs helped to lay the foundations for the modern movement. Today, we find ourselves returning to many of Morris’s preoccupations with craft skills and the environment, with local sourcing and vernacular traditions. But perhaps his greatest legacy was his avowed belief that, rich or poor, male or female, aesthetic beauty should be a central feature of everybody’s life and home.