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Book Review: Glasshouses

9780747812463Fiona Grant, Glasshouses (Shire, 2013; ISBN: 9780747812463) £6.99

As has long been known, greenhouses or conservatories, for the overwintering of tender orange and other citrus trees, were introduced to north-west Europe in the early 17th century. Over the following two hundred years they became as much buildings for pleasure and entertainment as for horticulture. But almost always (a few exceptions stood in public pleasure grounds) the cost of the glass in the tall, front, windows meant that these were  the preserve of the truly wealthy.

Over time, and especially in the early 19th century, new technologies, especially the use of thin, curved, cast-iron rims, enabled the design of light, almost wholly glass structures, with little visible supporting structure. Fiona Grant’s short book is excellently illustrated – top marks to her and to the publisher – with well-chosen and well-reproduced engravings and high-quality recent photographs, and for me it is these structures that most catch the eye. In their day, dome-like glasshouses, like the Grade-I listed example at Hilton Hall (Staffordshire), probably of the 1830s, must truly have been things of wonder to behold or to sit in, surrounded by exotic greenery. Since the early 19th century they have rarely been emulated, and probably never bettered.  Then, from the 1840s, cheap glass led to the proliferation of horticultural greenhouses in walled gardens and nurseries. But cheap didn’t mean nasty and, as we see, manufacturers vied with each other to produce structures that not only were designed for a particular purpose – growing vines, orchids or tomatoes – but which looked good and provided a suitable architectural setting for horticultural excellence.

The Hilton Hall glasshouse awaits restoration – which certainly isn’t cheap – but it is heartening to see that more and more it’s happening, with numerous examples illustrated here including the glistening, curvilinear, orangery or conservatory at Hopton Court, Shropshire, which when I first saw it twenty years ago was a rusting, and largely glassless, skeleton. Fiona Grant and the Walled Garden Network, of which she was a founder member, deserve great credit for pushing and pulling the restoration movement onwards, and this fine little publication will serve as a manifesto for what can be done, and how uplifting the results. These are not buildings which are white elephants, but once brought back to life are eminently usable: thrilling, uplifting, and great spaces for the wedding parties on which so many country houses rely.

Very sadly, Fiona Grant died at the New Year, after a short illness. But she saw her book published, and I hope was mightily pleased. It can be warmly recommended, and is a fine addition to Shire’s growing, and impressive, list of garden history titles.

Paul Stamper
English Heritage