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Paxton Built a Rock Garden at Chatsworth in 1842 – the Latest Victorian Fashion

During the early Victorian period in England rock gardens became popular. A rock garden included plants suitable for that low water environment, often alpine plants.  It also became an opportunity to showcase plants collected from abroad.

Caroline Ikin in her new book The Victorian Garden writes, “The new alpine plants being stocked by nurseries inspired enthusiasts to create their own rock gardens, some imitating mountain scenery and incorporating scaled-down versions of the Alps or the Khyber Pass.”

chatsworth rockery 1842
The Chatsworth rockery today

Rock gardens sometimes  of a substantial size  appeared in the garden.  At Chatsworth in 1842 the Head Gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) laid out a rock garden with huge boulders. The Chatsworth rock garden became a statement also about its owners.

When I visited Chatsworth and took this picture [above], what struck was the scale of the rock garden. The stones rising up the hill seemed enormous in size. I wondered what marvels of  men and machinery made it possible to install this kind of garden in the mid-nineteenth century.

At the same time here among American gardeners an interest in rock  gardens also flourished. Rochester, New York  seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) included an illustration of the popular rock garden in his garden magazine of 1879. [below].

Vick't Illustrated Monthly, 1879
Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1879


As the century came to an end more realistic rock gardens of a smaller scale became common.  Ikin writes, “Rock gardens became flatter and replicated more closely the native moraine habitat from which alpine plants were collected.”

The rock garden at Chatsworth illustrates how garden fashion influenced the nineteenth century English garden.

Vick recognized that and wrote in his Illustrated Monthly of February 1879, “The English people, I noticed, have a great predilection for rockeries and garden houses, and considerable taste and ingenuity is sometimes displayed in their adornment.”

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