He began his gardening career at Battlesdon in Surrey, working under one of his elder brothers. He was also apprenticed for a year or two to William Griffith the gardener at Woodhall Park at Watton. Griffiths being a fruit tree growing expert.
In 1823 he moved first to Lee and Henderson's nursery garden in Kensington and from there he was accepted as a student gardener at Chiswick to work in the Horticultural Society's new experimental gardens there. This was on land leased from the sixth Duke of Devonshire. In 1824 he was promoted to foreman and put in charge of the arboretum earning 18shillings a week.
Working here Paxton was spotted by the Duke who 1826 who was impressed by his intelligence and bearing and offered him the post of head gardener at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. The gardens here had been much neglected at the time.
Joseph remained at Chatsworth until the Duke died in 1858, at the same time taking on many other designs and gardening projects.
At Chatsworth he widened his talents to become forester, glasshouse designer and landscape architect, always supported by the Duke with whom he had an excellent relationship. In 1832 he became manager of the to the Duke's Estates and in 1838 accompanied the Duke on visits to Europe visiting many of the greatest gardens in France and Italy.
As he developed the Chatsworth gardens he designed greenhouses, a large conservatory and a special glasshouse to house a rare giant water lily, ‘the Victoria amazonica'. It was the shape of the lily leaves that inspired his glasshouse design. It was through these works that he developed his skills using glass, iron and wood combinations. These designs using a horizontal ridge - and - furrow roof formed the basis of what was to become his greatest design, namely, The Crystal Palace.
He re-introduced the formal seventeenth century garden systems immediately around the house that had been removed in earlier Brown style landscape developments. In 1835 he began to create an arboretum of 40 hectares using 1,670 different specimens. He continued to develop and extend the grounds at Chatsworth working with the Duke to make Chatsworth the most famous garden of its time. He constructed the rock garden and designed and built the ‘Emperor Fountain' with a jet reaching 260 feet high, it was the tallest in the world.
During the 1840's his reputation grew and he began to take on commissions to design other gardens and parks.In1842 he laid out Prince's Park in Liverpool for Sir William Jackson. Then in 1843 he designed Birkenhead Park, this being the first park to be built at public expense. This led to many other commissions such as Hesketh Park in Southport, the People's Park in Halifax and Princes Park in Liverpool.
Paxton developed friendships with botanists such as John Lindley and Sir William Hooker and helped to commission plant expeditions. He always retained an interest in the finding of new plant varieties and promoting them in his hothouses.
During these years he also extended his interests to journalism, becoming one of the founders of ‘The Gardeners Chronicle' in 1841. He also edited the Horticultural Register from 1832-1834 and Paxton's magazine of Botany from 1834 -1849.
It was in 1851 that national fame arrived by his designs and their acceptance for the Great Exhibition to be built in Hyde Park. The idea was based on his design for the lily house at Chatsworth and won acclaim because it was cheap, easy to erect and remove as well as looking quite spectacular. It was named the ‘Crystal Palace'. The building was about 500m long and 140m wide. It took 2,000 men just 8 months to complete the initial erection. After the exhibition the palace was re-erected in Sydenham and Paxton later designed the surrounding gardens in Italianate terraces in a baroque style. It remained a very popular venue for the public until it burned down in 1936.
Paxton's career and reputation continued to grow and he diversified to become liberal MP for Coventry in 1854 and a director of the Midland Railway. He remained on good terms with his patron, the Duke of Devonshire until the latter's death in 1858.
Paxton, despite his wealth and diversified career remained at heart a gardener and retained his interest in all things that grew, endeavouring to create alongside this interest an inspiring landscape in which plants of all shapes and sizes could thrive and delight mankind.
- Battlesden Park
- Baxter Park
- Bellevue, Halifax
- Birkenhead Park
- Chatsworth, Pinetum
- Crystal Palace Park
- Hampton Court, Hope under Dinmore
- Hesketh Park, Southport
- Holker Hall
- Kelvingrove Park
- Kemp Town Enclosures
- London Road Cemetery, Coventry
- Mentmore Towers
- Nottingham Arboretum
- People's Park, Halifax
- Prince's Park, Toxteth
- Rudding Park
- The Slopes, Buxton
- Somerleyton Hall
- South Cliff Gardens and Valley Gardens, Scarborough
- Tatton Park
- Wimbledon Park
- Woodhall Park