Through the glass wall
The first camellias brought to Chatsworth two centuries ago began a fine collection that, to this day, is still cultivated within the old glasshouses, finds Jacky Hobbs
Chatsworth House camellias, Chatsworth, Bakewell, Derbyshire
Chatsworth’s interwoven tapestry of ancestry and architecture is as evident in the gardens as it is in the house. Between them, successive Dukes created state-of-the-art heated glasshouses to exhibit waves of exotic new plants coming from distant lands. they included, almost 200 years ago, a collection of camellias. the original specimens have perished, but their direct descendants, together with 150 different species and cultivars, continue to occupy their original, surviving glasshouses.
the majority of the current camellia collection is planted in the First Duke’s Greenhouse, the original classical stone and glass ‘orangerie’ commissioned by the 1st Duke of Devonshire in 1697 and now regarded as one of the most important surviving 17thcentury glasshouses in England. It was originally built with twin wings, arched windows and a solid roof to house tender Continental citrus-fruit trees and myrtles. after its relocation in 1749, the frontage was further embellished, with 12 17th-century busts reclaimed from Chatsworth house courtyard in 1824, whereupon it was transformed into a devoted camellia house.
Joseph Paxton (1803–65), appointed head gardener at Chatsworth in 1826, added his trademark ‘ridgeand-furrow’ glass roof to optimise light and heat levels for the everincreasing varieties of camellias collected so avidly by the 6th Duke (1790–1858). During this era, Chatsworth accounts show details of camellia purchases dating back to 1831.
More than 50 named varieties were recorded by 1845 and included Camellia japonica, C. reticulata and C. sasanqua species together with many early cultivars. at the time, such Far Eastern novelties, feared to be tender, were encased in glass and heated in the colder months to protect against Chatsworth’s often chilly, northerly climate.
Paxton was responsible for the building of Chatsworth’s monumental horticultural glasshouses, most famously the Great Conservatory (1840–1920), which housed a jungle of enormous exotics and tropical palms brought back from planthunting expeditions to the americas and the East.