Decimus Burton (1800-1881)

Douglas Murphy wrote on 26 March, 2018 in Apollo Magazine:

“…today we associate Burton’s name not only with various inventive classical revival buildings around Regent’s Park and Hyde Park in London, but also with the remarkably futuristic glasshouses that sit in Kew Gardens, where Burton was architect for both the Palm House of 1844–48 and the Temperate House, built in stages from 1859–98 and now completing its second restoration in half a century…

…Working for the Duke of Devonshire in the 1830s, Burton was called upon to sign off the designs for the Great Stove at Chatsworth, a massive curved glasshouse that had been conceived by the head gardener Joseph Paxton and would become the template for his Crystal Palace a decade later. Burton was architect for the Royal Zoological Society, the Royal Botanic Society and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, meaning that a sizeable part of his professional life was taken up by horticultural work – and this in the middle of the 19th-century fever for constructing glass-roofed winter gardens.

The first major glass project at Kew, the Palm House, came about in disputed circumstances. Richard Turner of Dublin owned an iron foundry, had built a number of curvilinear glasshouses, and was enthusiastically touting his work in London society. He made a design for Kew, which had to be shown to Burton, who then insisted that Turner made changes to the design. The result, completed in 1848, is a delicate and diaphanous curved glass structure, recognisably related to Turner’s previous work at the Botanic Gardens in Belfast, but incorporating ideas drawn from Chatsworth and details such as a ‘palm frond order’ that Burton had used at Grimston Park, North Yorkshire, a decade previously. It is fair to call it a collaborative effort.

The Temperate House (see picture) is grander in scope but less experimental than the Palm House. The lack of external curvature means that the design appears less ambitious, even at its larger scale. Although Turner is given an attribution, his hand is less evident in this structure, while Burton’s classical sensibilities are far more apparent in the more austere form and substantial decoration. Consisting of five linked spaces – a central hall, two octagons and two additional wings – the Temperate House was partially open by 1863 but was only completed in a burst of work nearly 40 years later. At 180 metres long, and enclosing 4,880 square metres, it is the largest surviving winter garden of the era.

But being in the vanguard of anything carries risks. The innovations of the iron and glass period were often troublesome, and few of the many hundreds of winter gardens and glass exhibition halls that were built in the late 19th century are still extant. Both of Burton’s glasshouses at Kew required restoration in the late 20th century, with the Temperate House most recently being reopened in 1982. Since then, the materials had started to decay again, and another round of restoration was required, which, five years and £41 million later, has involved completely replacing the glazing and thousands of individual structural and decorative elements.

With its vast scale and full-size trees, the Temperate House has always been an awe-inspiring space. But it has tended to suffer from comparison with its smaller sibling, which Nikolaus Pevsner described as ‘one of the boldest pieces of 19th-century functionalism in existence’. Ian Nairn put it more strongly, celebrating ‘the utter originality and unselfconscious perfection of this building; nearer to a beautiful animal or to one of the plants it encloses than to the fumbling, guilt-laden compositions of architecture’.

‘Go afterwards,’ continued Nairn, ‘into the Temperate House to see how a mediocre designer can demean even this recipe.’ What he meant was that while the Palm House’s filigree elements create an ethereal soap-bubble effect, the Temperate House’s full-scale primary structure tends to give the distracting impression of a railway shed. But this is perhaps too harsh on Burton – for it is a privilege to have the opportunity once again to experience both of these dreamy environments of unconscious Victorian futurism.”

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