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Biography Depicts Humanity of Joseph Paxton

Head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) assumes an important role in the history of the English garden.

He not only created new features for the Duke of Devonshire’s garden, making it one of the most famous gardens in England, but helped gardeners everywhere with his innovations in gardening under glass and his search for new plants for the garden.

Recently I finished the extraordinary biography of Paxton by Kate Colquhoun, A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton.


Colquhoun won numerous awards for the book, her first. Her style of writing makes reading about Paxton in these pages most enjoyable. You feel like you are reading a novel.

Not to worry, however, because at the end of the book she gives detailed notes on her source material.

She refers to Paxton as “the greatest gardener of his time.” From his accomplishments she lists in chapter after chapter, the reader goes away in amazement that one man could do so much.

For me the central theme of the book centers on the idea that success comes, not from deeds performed however well and however many, but from a devotion and closeness to family and friends. Paxton exhibited that feature to the end of his life.  Colquhoun almost makes that kind of humanity the theme throughout the book.

One example is Paxton’s devotion to his employer the Duke for decades. Paxton had many other job opportunities as his work became more known in England. He turned them down to continue as the head gardener, and eventually, the one in charge of the estate at Chatsworth. He mourned the death of the Duke to such an extent that it made you feel that he was more than an employer.

Even while he built the Chrystal Palace and afterwards was elected to Parliament, Paxton sought to maintain a link to his own wife and children as well as his relationship with the Duke and his family.

Joseph Paxton’s greatness lies in his humanity.


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