by Kristine Hughes Patrone

Our next stop on Visit Britain’s Familiarization Trip for members of the travel trade was Leeds Castle, which bills itself as “the loveliest Castle in the world.” There’s no denying that it answers every little girl’s requirements for a fairy tale castle, although on the day we visited Prince Charming was not in evidence. Lunch was, however, as well as a tray of very welcome Pimm’s Cups and as warm a welcome as one could wish for at a fortified castle.

Do click on this link to watch a video of our walk up to the Castle and our arrival within. There’s a bit where the video goes all green – I had to put the camera down in order to remove my coat, but do hang in there, it all gets going again before too long.



As some of you will know, I was recently invited to attend Visit Britain’s travel Expo in Brighton, where tour operators and travel suppliers had the opportunity to meet and network while discussing travel products and sites. Representing Number One London Tours, I was able to discover a host of museums, behind the scenes tours, historic sites and stately homes that I will be including in future tours.

I was also invited to participate in a five day Familiarization Trip immediately following the two day Expo, which took us to Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire. Our first stop was stunning Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and mother to Queen Elizabeth I. More recently, Hever Castle was owned by William Waldorf Astor, who spent a considerable sum on the Castle’s restoration.

Today, the Castle is open daily to visitors and features several guest rooms, although these are only available to those who rent the entire Castle for private use. Below, my bedroom for the night, which was both lovely and enormous.

After freshening up from our travels, our group reassembled for cocktails and we were given a private tour of the Castle beginning in the Inner Hall, below, which was the Great Kitchen in the Tudor period. The Italian walnut panelling and columns were designed in 1905 by the sculptor William Silver Frith as part of William Waldorf Astor’s restoration of Hever Castle. The gallery above the hall was inspired by the rood screen at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The ceiling is in the Elizabethan style and incorporates the Tudor rose emblem.













The room above contained the domestic offices in the Tudor period and became the Drawing Room in 1905. It was designed and panelled by the architect Frank Loughborough Pearson for William Waldorf Astor. The oak panelling is inlaid with bog oak and holly and was inspired by the Elizabethan Inlaid Chamber at Sizergh Castle, Cumbria.

The Long Gallery, above, was constructed in the sixteenth century and extends across the entire width of the Castle. It was used for entertaining guests, taking exercise, and displaying art collections. The panelling dates from the sixteenth century. The ceiling is an early twentieth-century reconstruction in the Tudor style created by Nathaniel Hitch.

Our tour concluded with our going in for dinner to the dining room, below. In the fifteenth century this room was the Great Hall and was originally open to the roof rafters. The linenfold panelling, the ceiling and the fireplace surmounted by the Boleyn coat of arms were designed by William Silver Frith. The sculptor Nathaniel Hitch carved the Minstrels’ Gallery in 1905.













Part Two, the Hever Castle Gardens coming soon!


by Louisa Cornell
Me, poor man, my library
was dukedom large enough.
The Tempest
William Shakespeare

I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.
Fitzwilliam Darcy
Pride and Prejudice

When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.
Jane Austen

One can hardly envision an English stately home without a library somewhere about the premises. Think of all the murder mysteries without a place to discover an inconvenient corpse if this were not true. Or what about all of those Regency romance heroes and heroines searching for a respite from the tedium of a ball, only to discover the one lurking about in their host’s barely lit book room? One shudders to think!

It is surprising to discover large private libraries were rare in England before the 18th century. Before then, they were more likely to be found in the hands of kings, great lords, monasteries, and universities. However, a number of occurrences related to the Reformation of the 16th century – the spread of book printing, country houses began to take the place of monasteries and castles, the libraries of said monasteries were dispersed in sales as the monasteries were closed, and universities in the throes of humanist zeal purged their libraries, also in sales, all of which led to the acquisition of books by aristocrats eager to build their own book collections. Some of these aristocrats were genuine scholars and book lovers eager to preserve England’s and the world’s intellectual heritage. Others simply wanted to keep up with the neighbors. In three or four hundred years, very little has changed. Never underestimate the power of the male ego to turn Mine’s bigger than yours. into a competition.

The fashionable bar for libraries in country houses was set in the 18th century by Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford. His elegant library at Wimpole Hall, designed by James Gibbs in 1730, consisted of a huge room built to house his collection of over 50,000 books and 350,000 pamphlets and three small cabinet chambers leading into the library which housed his collection of coins, seals, antique cameos, and manuscripts. Unfortunately, his debts forced the sale of the entire collection on his death in 1741. Or perhaps his heir simply wasn’t the bookish type and opted to get rid of the library rather than land or other assets. Whatever the reasons for the dispersal of the library, the Earl of Oxford fired the starting shot across the bow of every aristocrat in England. The race was on to amass the largest and most unique and valuable collection of books and to erect the most spectacular temple to the written word in which to house them.
 Far end library – Wimpole Hall 
I will be covering a great deal more about the advent of libraries in stately homes in my follow-up post. (Yes, there will be a follow-up post. There is a reason I write novels and not short stories.) The library in an English country house was made up of a beautifully constructed room designed for the specific purpose of housing books. Once the room was designed, crafted, and finished it was filled, of course, with books. However, there was another, little studied, aspect of creating those beautiful libraries which I would like to address in brief in this post. After all, if you are going to dispose of a body it is helpful to have a few things in the room behind which to hide it. A dead body is so much more effective if it is found suddenly and results in screaming servants or fainting ladies. And remember those heroes and heroines meeting in the library? What happens if there is nothing on which, against which, or behind which to tryst? I’m all for romance, but carpet burns, even on a very expensive Aubusson carpet, do tend to ruin the mood.
Thus begs the question, what sort of furnishings might one find in his lordship’s library? What started out as an ostentatious room to display one’s intellectual snobbery soon became a refuge for the man of the house. His lordship could invariably be found “hiding” in his library when any number of unpleasant events occurred, including, but not limited to – his wife. Over the years it eventually morphed into a sort of living area for the family. This may be responsible for the sheer size of such rooms. Family togetherness was all well and good, but lets not becom
e too bourgeoisie about this. By the late Regency it would not be unusual to find his lordship at his desk, her ladyship reading before the fire, the daughters at the piano at the far end of the library, and the sons perusing maps on a library table or sneaking a peek at grandfather’s naughty books shelved on the top shelves at the far end of the library.
Here are a few items one might have found in the stately home library to facilitate the room’s many purposes.

Library Steps –

Most libraries included shelves going nearly to the ceiling. Every inch of space was utilized. If a mezzanine balcony was not added to access those shelves at the higher levels, library steps were used to peruse the shelves above one’s head. The set below includes a post with which to steady oneself when descending with an armload of books.
19th Century Mahogany Library Steps
A sturdier version, also mahogany 19th century.

Library chairs –

Once one had retrieved the books one wished to read, a comfortable chair in which to read them was necessary. Of course, most libraries included one or more fireplaces for heat and chairs and sofas were often arranged around them for reading and conversation. These items – chairs, sofas, and even chaises for those inclined to recline and read – might come from other areas of the house. (Trysting on a chaise is far more comfortable than trysting on a library table or worse. Remember the carpet burn?) More often, chairs ordered specifically for the library were put into use. Here are some examples of chairs designed for use in the library. 
19th Century English Leather Library Chair
This looks to be a very comfortable chair and has the added advantage of wheels should one wish to move it closer to the fire or away from noisy family and guests. The chair above is in fantastic condition considering it is over 200 years old. Craftsmanship, ladies and gentlemen. Craftsmanship.
19th Century Leather Library Chairs  
These two were undoubtedly used on either side of a library fireplace. The sides might shield one from the prying eyes of others, or in the case of two people sitting before they fire they might shield a private conversation from others in the library.

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English Regency Library Chair

I find this particular chair fascinating. The shelf on the back can be made to lay flat or can be dropped to the back of the chair completely. One can only assume it was made for someone to kneel in the chair and read over the back or perhaps the shelf was for the reader to stack extra books. No matter its function it is a uniquely designed chair and in all design books and catalogues it is listed strictly as a library chair.

19th Century Rosewood Library Chair

This chair represents the evolution towards comfort and relaxation in Regency era furniture, an evolution which started in those items designed for both the library and the bedchamber. A clear indication, perhaps, of these rooms being viewed as those where one might be more at ease than in the more public and formally social rooms of the house.

Bookcases – 

Of course,  the walls of libraries were lined with built-in shelves, inset bookcases or free standing bookcases pressed to the walls. In addition to these large shelving units for books, a library might contain other places in which or on which to house books. There were smaller bookcases, library tables, and even movable cases on which to organize one’s books for further use.

This lovely piece is a Regency era mahogany bookshelf with castors on the bottom to enable it to be moved easily about the library. The drawers were for manuscripts or folios. I would imagine a butler or footman might have found it useful in returning books to the shelves after his lordship left them scattered about the library.

The above is a Regency era parcel gilt lacquer circular bookcase, and, yes, it spins. In the photograph, it is used to hold sets of books. One might imagine it next to a comfy chair with a few days’ or weeks’ worth of books on it within reach of his lordship or her ladyship during a long winter’s reading season.

Library Tables –

Library tables were present in any 18th and 19th century library. They were used for a variety of purposes. They were designed to be placed in the middle of a room as surfaces to spread out maps, folios, or a selection of books. It is important to remember whilst these were family libraries, they were also resources for local vicars, magistrates, scholars, and anyone from the estate and local villages who might want to make use of them with his lordship’s permission. They were often used to look over design plans for houses, gardens and estates. These rooms were not simply for show. Most, if not all, were used every day for every sort of pursuit today’s public libraries might encounter.

Library Globes –

A final item to complete the furnishing of the stately home library might be a globe. They were used to plot a journey, check the location of an investment property, or perhaps to plan a young man’s Grand Tour. There were terrestrial globes and also globes of the constellations for those with an astronomical bent.

Pair of 21 inch Regency Globes – Terrestrial and Constellations for those with Navy affiliations.
Rare Regency Era 36 inch terrestrial globe by Cary’s of London

There you have it, a few of the odds and ends, unique pieces designed and created for use in the magnificent libraries of those exquisite country houses. They created and continue to create an atmosphere of elegance and intellectual pursuit. They gave these spaces a personal touch, often an indication of the family’s character, attitudes, and even their relationships with each other. These pieces are also markers in the evolution of the views of houses as homes rather than simply showplaces. Items previously designed with an eye to their ability to stress the owner’s wealth, success, and power began to morph into pieces crafted to be practical, to blend in with their surroundings, and to promote concepts of ease and relaxation. Books became escapes as well as instruments of learning. Reading became a pastime enjoyed by all, rather than a strictly scholarly pursuit. As much as we owe the owners of these libraries for the preservation of our literary heritage, we also owe them thanks for making reading more than simply a search for knowledge, but also an endless source of joy.


ONCE AGAIN WEDNESDAY – Mr. Phillip's' Auction Offices – Part One

Mention of venerable London auction houses invariably brings to mind Christie’s, in King Street. But there was another auction firm who held some of the most anticipated, and most unique, auctions in the City. The London firm of auctioneers known as Phillips and Son of 73, New Bond Street, was founded by Harry Phillips in 1796. Phillips died in October of 1839 at his house at Worthing, age 73, and was succeeded by his son, who, with his son, son-in-law, and Mr. Frederick Neale, carried on the business of fine art and general auctioneers. Amongst some of the more important art sales by this firm were: The Beckford Collection at Fonthill Abbey, Sir Simon Clarke’s engravings; a thirty-days’ sale of engravings from Paris; the Duke of Buckingham’s engravings, in 1830; Duke of Lucca’s Collection, in 1841; the Count de Morny’s Collection, in 1848; Lady Blessington’s property, in 1849; Lord Northwick’s pictures, in 1859; the Marquis of Hastings’ pictures, books, and engravings, in 1869; Sir Charles Rushout’s pictures and engravings in 1880, including a small collection of about one hundred examples by Bartolozzi (many duplicates) in a folio, which sold for 225 guineas. Another lot in the same sale, containing ninety-eight prints by Bartolozzi and school, sold for 174 guineas.

A book titled Art Sales of 1891 sheds some light on what the going rates for auction houses of that day were – The commissions charged are 7 per cent, on pictures, plate, jewels, porcelain, wine and effects, sculpture, and modern drawings, and 12 per cent, on engravings, books, manuscripts, sketches, coins, medals, antique gems, and old drawings, 5 per cent, being charged on unsold or bought-in lots under £100, and 2 percent, exceeding that sum. For furniture at private houses or in the country the charge is 10 per cent. There is no charge for making valuations for probate if the property is subsequently sold by auction. To secure a day at Messrs. Christie’s, application must be made some months beforehand, and Saturdays in the season are allotted only to exceptionally fine collections.

Still, many of those who had their property sold by auction were in no position to balk at the terms, as they were either badly in hock to creditors or deceased, as evidenced by the following piece which ran in The Gentleman’s Magazine 1805 – Mr. Phillip Auction-room, New Bond-street, was crowded with nobility and persons of distinction. After the sale of several choice lots of china, statues, and Mr. Phillips stated the conditions of sale of the elegant house and furniture, in Hill-street, Berkeley-square, belonging to Mr. Robert Heathcote. The auctioneer referred to the printed particulars, which were in the hands of the company, for the minute description of this elegant mansion, held under a lease from Earl Berkeley, for an unexpired term of 30 years, at a ground rent of 11 l. 7 s. 6d.; and, he stated, that the cost to Mr. Heathcote had been as follows: For the lease, £6000. to Mr. Cundy, the architect, whose taste and judgment had been so conspicuously displayed in the new arrangement and fitting-up of the house, and particularly in the erection of the new and superb library . . . After stating, that every article in Mr. Heathcote’s house at present, except plate, jewels, linen, books, pictures, wines, china, glass-ware, and apparel, would go to the purchaser, the biddings commenced with 1, 000 guineas, on which several advances we’re made from different parts of the room, till they got up to £10,000, when the contest lay entirely between two gentlemen, who were rather tardy in their advances of 50 and 100 guineas at a time, till at length it was knocked down to P. Phillips, esq.

Another entry reads –

Furniture Of Napoleon—On Wednesday a sale by auction of the property of the late Sir Hudson Lowe, including some portion of the furniture which was in the possession of the Emperor Napoleon at St. Helena, took place at the auction rooms of Mr. Phillips, by order of the executors of Sir Hudson Lowe. These consisted of about twenty lots, and among them were a large mahogany frame indulging chair, banded with ebony, on castors, from the Emperor’s study, 15/. 5s.; a small circular mahogany pillar and claw table, on which Napoleon burnt pastiles, 61. 6s.; a six-foot pedestal library table, formed of mahogany and yew tree, on which table he almost always wrote, 18. 18s.; an ebonied arm chair, with cane seat and back, formed of common materials (there was a hole in the cane seat which had been caused by being constantly used, and it was stated by some brokers in the room not to be worth 1s. 6.) From the chair being light it was carried about by the Emperor when he took his walks M Longwood. It was bought for £6.

One sale that was the destined to be the auction of the year, if not the decade, was that of Fonthill Abbey, owned by William Beckford, the author of Vathek. Beckford had commissioned architect James Wyatt to design the Abbey and very few people were invited inside whilst Beckford resided there. For a complete look at both Beckford and the auction we turn to The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction –

THE LATE WILLIAM BECKFORD. From the newspapers we learn that the author of “Vathek” is no more. He died last week at Bath, where he had erected a singular edifice, in some respects a miniature of his former abode, the far-famed Fonthill Abbey.

Beckford squandered his money in the most reckless manner, and at his bidding Fonthill arose, one of the wonders of the world. He bought Gibbon’s library, and left it locked up at Lausanne, and the reason he gave for the purchase was that he might have some books to read when he happened to visit that town. It was not the splendour of Fonthill Abbey —though that was great—nor the value of its contents—though on these immense sums had been expended—that fixed public attention on Fonthill Abbey, so much as the habits of the proprietor, exaggerated, and, in all probability, misrepresented, by report. He was said to see no company, to allow no approach— but to live in almost regal state. Though he had servants fitting his opulence, his favourite was understood to be a dwarf, called Pero. Mr. Beckford was described to be violent. He would speak harshly, or more than speak, to a
servant or a villager that came in his way, but, soon relenting, it was his care nobly to recompense the party he had outraged. It was shrewdly suspected that some of those who experienced the throb of his impetuous anger had artfully put themselves in the way of it, for the sake of the healing donation which was likely to follow.

He certainly lived in seclusion for a number of years, and objected to the abbey being shown to the curious. It was even said, George IV, when Prince of Wales, had intimated a wish to visit it, which had been met by something like a refusal. Be this as it may, it got wind among the public that the residence of Mr. Beckford was “a sealed book;” and when, in 1822, the news burst on the town that the abbey and all its contents were about to be on public view, preparatory to a sale by auction, every one was anxious to see the Palace of Wonders. It was likened to throwing open the blue-room of Bluebeard.

It is not surprising that so eccentric a man excited the popular wonder, and that when in consequence of the depreciation of his West India property he decided to sell Fonthill via an auction conducted by Mssrs. Christie, the public excitement was intense: Fonthill, which had been talked about by the whole nation but only seen by a very few. This was in 1822. Seven thousand two hundred catalogues were sold at a guinea each to those who wished to see the place. However, it was not disposed of by Mr. Christie at public auction, but sold en masse to Mr. John Farquhar for £330,000. Beckford reserved, however, some of his choicest books, pictures, and curiosities.

The whole property had been bought by the late Mr. H. Phillips for a Mr. Farquhar, a Scotsman, of very penurious habits, who had mode a vast fortune in India, but who continued to dress and to live in the meanest style. He bought this palace and park, not because, like old Scrooge, a dream had induced him to rush from grinding parsimony to openhearted benevolence, but because it appeared a good opportunity for increasing his store, aided by the experience and talent of the Bond-street auctioneer. It is true he took up his abode in it for a time, but he bought it not to inhabit, but to sell, and accordingly it was announced in the following year that the whole, as the phrase is, was to be brought to the hammer. The ensuing sale occupied thirty-seven days.

Mr. Beckford’s library was very extensive, yet, among the countless ranges of books which he possessed, he had so extraordinary a memory, that he could at once indicate the shelf, and the part of the shelf, on which any particular volume might he found. This was proved, to the utter amazement of the new proprietor of Fonthill. In many of the works, notes had been made, in the handwriting of Mr. Beckford: the books which contained them were intended to be withdrawn, but, by accident, some escaped discovery; they were discovered by the prying gentlemen of the press, and the memoranda found in several of the books appeared in the newspapers. They were eagerly sought after at the sale, though frequently they presented but quotations from the books: occasionally, however, they expressed opinions, and some of them were of a most singular nature. High prices were given for these, and some, it was understood, were purchased for Mr. Beckford at twenty times the price which the holder had given for them at the sale. His thoughts were often expressed with great force. In one instance, speaking of human nature, he powerfully marked his sense of the humanising power of letters. He pointed to the mind of man as wretched in its native state — as ” blood-raw, till cooked by education.”

With the money he received from Mr. Farquhar, Beckford purchased annuities and land near Bath. He united two houses in the Royal Crescent by a flying gallery extending over the road, and his dwelling became one vast library. In 1810 Beckford’s second daughter, Susanna Euphemia, married Alexander, Marquis of Douglas, who succeeded his father as 10th Duke of Hamilton, and to her he left all his property. Beckford died at Bath on May 2, 1844, aged 84. Most of Fonthill Abbey collapsed under the weight of its poorly-built tower the night of 21 December 1825.

This link will bring you to the catalogue for the Fonthill Abbey Library of 20,000 books

Also in 1822, on 9 February, Phillips auctioned the contents of Bradenburgh House upon the death of the Queen. Phillips’s royal connections continued, as evidenced by this piece from the Annual Register of  1831 – Sale Of His Late Majesty’s Coronation Robes.— A portion of his late Majesty’s costly and splendid wardrobe destined for public sale, including the magnificent coronation robes and other costumes, was sold by auction, by Mr. Phillips, at his rooms in New Bond Street. There were 120 lots disposed of, out of which we subjoin the principal in the order in which they were put up :— No. 13. An elegant yellow and silver sash of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphie Order, 3/. 8.— 17. A pair of fine kid-trousers, of ample dimensions, and lined with white satin, was sold for 12.v.— 35. The coronation ruff, formed of superb Mechlin-lace, 2/.—50. The costly Highland costume worn by our late Sovereign at Dalkeith Palace, the seat of his Grace the Duke of Buccleugh, in the summer of 1822, was knocked down at 40/.— 52. The sumptuous crimson-velvet coronation mantle, with silver star, embroidered with gold, on appropriate devices, and which cost originally, accordiug to the statement of the auctioneer, upwards of 500/., was knocked down at 47 guineas.—53. A crimson coat to suit with the above, 14/. – 55. A magnificent gold body-dress and trousers, 26 guineas.—67- An extraordinary large white aigrette plume, brought from Paris by the Earl of Fife, in April, 1815, and presented by his lordship to the late King, was sold for 15/.—87. A richly embroidered silver tissue coronation waistcoat and trunk hose, 13/.—95. The splendid purple velvet coronation mantle, sumptuously embroidered with gold, of which it was said to contain 200 ounces. It was knocked down at 55/., although it was stated to have cost his late Majesty 300/.—96. An elegant and costly green velvet mantle, lined with ermine of the finest quality; presented by the Emp
eror Alexander to his late Majesty, which cost upwards of 1,000 guineas, was knocked down at 125/.

Part Two, featuring the Blessington/D’Orsay Auction, coming soon . . . . .

Originally published August 2010


With this post we’re instituting Once Again Wednesdays, whereby we republish some of our most popular posts and reader favourites.

What is an Orangery? by Victoria Hinshaw – Originally published in April 2010

Since the first purposeful cultivation of plants, humankind has struggled to improve growing conditions by altering the environment. For the plant to thrive, is it too cold? Too dark? Too rainy? Too arid? Too windy? How can the plant’s living arrangements be improved to give it maximum light, water, air circulation and fertility? How can we improve on Mother Nature?

Below, inside the Orangery at Saltram House, Plymouth, Devon.

Today we take for granted the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers in computer-monitored locations that bring us year-round production, the result of centuries of experimentation and invention. Two hundred years ago, our ancestors knew what was needed for maximum production, and they were quickly developing the technological requirements for success.

To some extent, the terms greenhouse, glasshouse, hothouse, orangerie, pinery, and conservatory can be used interchangeably, though each has a generally agreed upon specific meaning. All these terms and the buildings they describe existed in Georgian England, mostly at royal palaces and the estates of the wealthy aristocracy. 

The Regency era, whether one confines the definition strictly to 1811-1820 or, more broadly, the French Revolution to Victoria 1789-1837, was truly a time of transition in enhanced plant cultivation indoors.

At Carlton House, the Prince of Wales’ London residence (demolished in 1826-27), a conservatory was added in 1807 in the newest construction techniques in cast iron columns and a fan vaulted ceiling supporting large glass spaces. The architect was Thomas Hopper (1776-1856) whose work was considered a tour de force. The conservatory opened into the gardens at one end. If one looked in the opposite direction, there was a clear view of the entire lower ground-floor range of rooms.

The Carlton House conservatory was intentionally theatrical, as some writers observed, bringing the term “elaborate” to a new level. The Prince Regent planned a great fete for 2,000 people on June 19, 1811, to celebrate his Regency. Down the middle of the 200-foot length of the table ran a curving stream of water lined with flowers, mossy banks and crossed by miniature bridges. Goldfish swam up and down this tiny stream. Here is the account by John Ashton in Social England Under the Regency (1895) of the Prince Regent’s conservatory and the party: “…the architecture of it is of the most delicate Gothic. …In the front of the Regent’s seat there was a circular basin of water, with an enriched Temple in the centre of it, from whence there was a meandering stream to the bottom of the table, bordered with green banks. Three or four fantastic bridges were thrown over it, one of them with a small tower upon it, which gave the little stream a picturesque appearance. It contained also a number of gold and silver fish. The excellence of design, and exquisiteness of workmanship could not be exceeded; it exhibited a grandeur beyond description; while the many and various purposes for which gold and silver materials were used were equally beautiful and superb in all their minute detail.”

Existing watercolors of the conservatory by Charles Wild (1781-1835), who painted many views of Carlton House, do not show any plants placed to take advantage of the overhead light provided by the glass and iron fan vaulting. These watercolours were published by Rudolph Ackermann in his Repositories of the Arts, beginning in October 1819. The watercolors of Carlton House and other royal residences were re-issued in 1984 by The Vendome Press, ISBN 0-86565-048-9. In Regency Design, however, Steven Parissien shows a view of the Prince Regent’s conservatory with extensive planting along the sides p. 218; also in Morley, p. 787). He also notes that the structure leaked badly and quotes Nash in 1822, “the glazed vaulting was ‘worse than useless as a roof’ and recommended replacing it with plaster.” Leaks or no leaks, Prinny’s conservatory was, as he wished, a trend-setter.

The fanciful orangery at Sezincote, in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, inspiration for the Brighton Pavilion. Visit Sezincote.

A more modest conservatory was built by the renowned regency architect Sir John Soane at his country home Pitshanger Manor, in Ealing, a suburb of London. Mavis Batey writes, “The breakfast room opened on to a conservatory, which ran the length of the building, with sash windows to the floor, partly of coloured glass. Soane described it as ‘enriched with antique cinerary urns, sepulchral vases, statues…vines and odiferous plants; the whole producing a succession of beautiful effects, particularly when seen by moonlight, or when illuminated and the lawn enriched with company enjoying the delights of cheerful society.'” Despite the difference in scale, it is clear that the conservatories at Carlton House and Pitshanger Manor shared a common element: they were used for entertainment and socializing.

Greenhouses have ancient sources. The Romans, adept at channeling the waters and building for maximum comfort, had many schemes to enhance growing conditions for plants of all kinds. The Roman emperor Tiberius had a sort of greenhouse, called a Specularium, created with mica in small translucent flakes where we would today have glass. Tiberius, it is reported, needed a year-round supply of his favorite food: cucumbers! Further developments in specularia included ducts carrying hot water or cool air, typical of Roman engineering. Among the plants grown in these mica-roofed structures were grapes, peaches and roses.

Orangeries can be seen at many English country houses and on the grounds of several royal palaces im Britain, as well as throughout Europe. Below, the orangery at Belton House, Lincolnshire

A primary motivation for the improvement of greenhouse design was the English penchant for the collection and study of botanic material from all over the globe. The earliest explorers brought back seeds and exotic species. The damp, chill English climate needed some alteration if these new species were to survive and flourish.

Kew Gardens (officially the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew) originally belonged to the royal family. Frederick, Prince of Wales, (son of George II and father of George III) and his wife, Princess Augusta, had a great interest in exotic plants. Their collection is the core of today’s 40,000 varieties of plants at Kew. None of Kew’s hothouses survive from the Georgian period. One regency-era building, the Nash Conservatory, was built at Buckingham Palace in the design of a Greek temple; it was moved to Kew in 1836. Recently fully restored, the Nash Conservatory is used now as a school education center.

By the middle of the 19th century, the popularity of greenhouses had grown exponentially. What’s more, materials became less expensive and more readily available, so greenhouses and growing plants under glass were no longer a pastime only of the wealthy. Small greenhouses and conservatories of many designs were added to middle class Victorian houses. There was also competition by cities and countries to build conservatories as part of grand public parks. These housed exotic, non-native plants as well as common varieties, and remain popular today.

One of the most famous glass buildings in the world was the Crystal Palace, built in London in 1850-51 for the Great Exhibition. Chief architect was Joseph Paxton (1803-65), former gardener to the sixth Duke of Devonshire (the Bachelor Duke). It contained all kinds of exhibits, not only plants. Nonetheless, the design of the Crystal Palace influenced decades worth of greenhouses and conservatories, including the many you can order for your home today.

For her help in finding some interesting sources on this subject, special thanks to Jo Manning.
Among the sources used for this post are:
Batey, Mavis, Regency Gardens, Shire Garden History, 1995, ISBN 0-7478-0289-0.
Hobhouse, Penelope, Gardening Through the Ages, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, ISBN 0-671-72887-3.
Parissien, Steven, Regency Style, Washington, D. C.: The Preservation Press, 1992, ISBN 0-89133-172-7
Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow, Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 2001, ISBN 0-8109-4253-4.