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‘Gardens under Glass’: The Victorian conservatory

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

'In the Conservatory' by James Tissot c.1875

I've always been somewhat taken with glasshouses: be it the Palm House at Kew or smaller versions that you find tucked away in National Trust or other gardens open to the public. To the general amusement of friends, I get quite excited if I unexpectedly come across a surviving Victorian or Edwardian glasshouse on my gardening travels, especially those with original features such as metal opening brackets, decorative floor tiles, or fancy heating grills! And I find the history and development of Victorian conservatories just as interesting, as it was the construction of the biggest glasshouse of them all, the Crystal Palace, for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, that really fuelled their popularity. So much so that, by the latter part of the 19th century, the conservatory had become the must-have ornamental addition to the homes of upper and middle-class Victorians.


Often attached to the drawing room, the conservatory functioned as an extra room for recreation and play, but it was also about the Victorians' love of plants. Usually the bigger and more exotic the better, often creating a "sensuous haven" within the home where the usual strict conventions of Victorian society could ease, even if just ever so slightly. In contemporary works of art and fiction the conservatory often features as a place for conversations about marriage and affairs of the heart, as can be seen in the painting above by James Tissot [noted for his paintings of the Victorian nouveau riche], where there appears to be some unchaperoned flirting going on amongst the lush palm trees.

A conservatory also pops up in one Victorian pot-boiler, The White Rose, by George Whyte-Melville published in 1868, where Norah, the heroine of the story, having danced away the evening in the adjacent ballroom, is led into the conservatory on the arm of a gentleman, “followed by meaningful glances from two or three observant ladies…”, where she delights in "the quaintly-twisted pillars, the inlaid pavement, the glittering fountain, and the painted lanterns hanging amongst broad-leafed tropical plants and gorgeous flowers”. [I didn't have time to read on to discover in anything of note happened to Norah amongst the exotic planting...]

The conservatory was also a subject for gardening books and journals. Due to the work of botanic institutions, large estates, seed and nursery-men, as well as professional and amateur plant-hunters, Victorians enjoyed not only common or garden species, but had a constant supply of new and exciting plants arriving from all over the globe, while the increasing fashion for conservatories drove the market for ever more exotic plants.

The Conservatory by W C Jarvis, 1884

By the middle of the 19th century, Victorians were in the grip of what garden writer Catherine Horwood [in her 2020 book*] calls a "horticultural hysteria", as many middle-class families were "seized by a green-fingered fervour in their attempts to out-plant their next door neighbour". Whether with newly introduced exotics, collections of beautiful orchids, strange pitcher plants, or fashionable ferns. [See my blog The Victorian Fern Craze: "tasseled, feathered, fringed, frilled, crimped, and curled".]

Filled with all these plants and trees, flowers in borders or pots, climbing plants trained on wires or hanging from the roof – in what one contemporary writer described as "fanciful festoons", and with pools, fountains and caged birds, the Victorian conservatory was as crammed full of plants as their drawing rooms were crammed full of furniture.

'Il Penseroso' by John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1875. Note the large leaves of the Begonia Rex, a conservatory favourite

Conservatory vs Greenhouse

Somewhat confusingly for the modern reader, many Victorian writers use the word greenhouse to mean either a greenhouse or a conservatory, although The Oxford Companion to Gardens explains that the term 'conservatory' is, to a certain degree, interchangeable with glasshouse, greenhouse, orangery, palm house, or winter garden. The first glasshouses of the late sixteenth century were for over-wintering tender green plants – hence the word green-house, while conservatory originally meant to conserve greens (i.e. green plants).

However, some writers sought to define differences between them: George Todd (Plans, Elevations and Sections of Hot-Houses, Greenhouses, Conservatories,1823) and John Loudon (Suburban Gardener, 1838) both emphasised the conservatory as being larger and taller than the greenhouse in order to accommodate large specimen plants. It's use as an extra room was also agreed upon – James Shirley Hibberd writing in 1873 that it should be used "for frequent resort and agreeable assemblage at all seasons and especially at times of festivity".

From the 1850's onwards [following on no doubt from the success of the Great Exhibition], private conservatories became a normal part of middle-class life. Conservatories also became a rest place on garden walks in the summer and, as Samuel Beeton later pointed out in Beeton’s Dictionary of Every-Day Gardening (1909), they afforded a "means of exercise to the ladies and visitors in inclement weather". As a result, conservatories moved closer to the house or were attached to it. They were landscaped and kept looking attractive all year round. While, by this time, most were unheated to keep heating costs down – Hibberd noting that heating was "a vexation beyond its value". Greenhouses, whose main purpose was to shelter plants in winter, became a practical place for growing them and were usually sited away from the house.

'In the Conservatory' by Edouard Manet, 1879, shows his friends Monsieur and Madame Guillemets

Background – the Spread of Suburbia and the Victorian 'Villa'

During the 19th century, virtually all aspects of life in Britain were transformed by the industrial revolution and, with the rapid progress in science and technology, came a dramatic increase in the population – growing from 9 million in 1801 to 36 million by 1911. As a consequence, huge numbers of new homes were needed, and these were often developed by property speculators or master-builders. The country's increasing industrial and commercial prosperity also created wealthy professional middle classes. Whilst wishing to live near their source of income, but away from the squalor and overcrowding that they had helped to create, they moved to houses built on the outskirts of towns and cities where there was more space and cleaner air – in the fast-growing new 'suburbs'.

One example of this was Bedford Park in London, a purpose-built suburb begun in 1875 which was extremely influential in middle-class housing developments across the country. Set in 245 acres with existing mature trees, it had good rail connections, and was only 30 minutes from the City of London.

'The Tower House, Bedford Park, London' by Adolf Manfred Trautschold c.1880. Designed by Richard Norman Shaw in 1879

One distinctive feature of these new homes was their attached private gardens. The plot sizes varied according to the owners’ wealth and aspirations – from one-quarter of an acre up to ten acres or more as described by Loudon in The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion (1838), in which he stated that "a suburban residence, with a very small portion of land attached, will contain all that is essential to happiness...". The houses – or villas, were terraced, semi-detached or detached but, whatever their size, they provided what one writer describes as "scaled-down aristocratic gardens – arcadias suitably distant in space and spirit from the climate of the Victorian city".**

Victorian villa with attached conservatory by manufacturers, Foster & Pearson

Whilst middle-class gardens were just as much about showing-off to the neighbours as aristocratic gardens, they were designed with privacy more in mind. Where possible they were surrounded by high walls, while the lawns and houses were shielded by shrubberies. And within this private environment the middle classes could garden, hold theatricals, indulge in music, games, and many other recreational activities – and in this, the conservatory played an important part.

In the Conservatory' by Frances Maria Jones Bannerman, 1883

The Gardening Literature

And, out in those suburbs, the new breed of middle-class amateur gardeners, armed with numerous books, journals, magazines, and even cheap weekly gardening papers, indulged their love of gardening. Works by contemporary garden writers and the flourishing horticultural press provided reams of information and advice. Particularly important were the writings of landscape architect Humphrey Repton (1752-1818), John Loudon (1773-1843), and James Shirley Hibberd (1825-1890) – the latter two being prolific writers who both produced many books and edited several gardening magazines.

The increasing popularity of the conservatory was noted by Loudon in his book The Green-House Companion (1824), writing that conservatories had "become an appendage to every villa …not indeed one of the first necessity, but one which is …highly desirable, and …a mark of elegant and refined enjoyment". Whilst in the growing numbers of middle-class suburban villas, these gardens under glass, as Hibberd dubbed them in his later book, The Amateur's Greenhouse and Conservatory (1873), became a symbol of their owners’ new wealth and taste – and their status in Victorian society.

The middle classes certainly took to gardening with gusto – so much so that the first issue of the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1841 stated that it was not only written for the “many thousands of persons… engaged in Horticulture as a means of existence”, but was also aimed at the “vast number more” that were interested in the subject as “gardens are now an indispensable part of the domestic establishment of every person who can afford the expense”. Such was the demand for information and advice, that Hibberd also began the magazine Amateur Gardening in 1884, making it clear that the intended audience was the amateur working gardener: "This paper is not for idlers of any class" he wrote, adding firmly that "we forbid them to read it".

Conservatories, seen as the domain of the ladies of the house as gardening and the care of a conservatory or greenhouse were seen as suitable female pursuits, often adjoined their sitting or receiving rooms. And some authors wrote specifically for them. One, only identified as 'A Lady', wrote Every Lady's Guide to her own Greenhouse, Hothouse and Conservatory (1851) for those who wished "to grow... everything worthy of notice that will flourish in the same building".

‘Five O’Clock Tea No. 2’ by Edith Hayllar, 1895. During the months when the garden was too chilly, the conservatory was also the ideal venue for that very English pastime of eating cucumber sandwiches, cake, and drinking tea.

‘A Lady’ is full of good advice for those of her gentle readers who had no domestic servants able to assist her in the garden, greenhouse or conservatory: “she must get a man on purpose for the plant affairs” she wrote. But, she emphasised, “not a gardener”, as it would not do to have a man telling you what to do… “but a man who can turn his hand to ordinary things… one who has not been spoiled in a garden establishment; one who will fetch and carry, wash, sweep, and clean, attend to what he is told, and not act on his own opinion…”. Ah, if only...

On a more serious note, ‘A Lady’ was not disparaging of professional gardeners, more that she worried that such professionals would not be too keen taking instructions from a mere woman! But, on one thing at least, she agreed with Hibberd. The conservatory was to be considered the “show-house” of the garden, using “plants well selected” and “giving room to no plants that will not reward the owner by their exquisite foliage, their attractive flowers, or by both”.

The Gardeners’ Chronicle and The Garden also produced articles and advice, answered readers’ questions, and carried pages of advertisements from manufacturers of everything from entire ‘off-the-peg’ conservatories to ancillary products. The Victorian passion for decoration was also well catered for with mass-produced moulded metal accoutrements such as cast-iron furniture, patterned grills for hot-water pipes, twisted, grooved or garlanded supporting columns, curling brackets for flower baskets, as well as fountains and statues.

‘The Bunch of Lilacs’, James Tissot, c.1875

Further decorations, such as glazed flower pots and vases, and elegant etageres, were also popular, while books such as Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (1870) were on hand to guide and advise on other domestic ornamental additions, such as aviaries, aquariums, fern cases and floral arrangements. Loudon’s The Green-House Companion (1824) recommended larger-growing genera such as camellias, banksias and acacias, while Hibberd’s books, including New and Rare Beautiful- Leaved Plants (1869), described ornamental-leaved plants such as begonias, caladiums, palms and yuccas to produce in the conservatory “a beautiful assemblage of many of the richest colours and most elegant forms”. As the title of his book suggests, Hibberd considered foliage and leaves to be just as important as flowers: ”Beautiful leaves will not elbow flowering plants aside, but will enhance their beauty by contrast, and enrich the harmony in which they play so conspicuous a part”.

'Dracaena terminalis var. Stricta', Plate VIII from Hibberd’s 1869 book, ‘New and Rare Beautiful-Leaved Plants’

Glasshouse Mania

There were, of course, other influences that drove the popularity of conservatories.

One was the famous iron-framed Great Conservatory at Chatsworth built by Joseph Paxton, gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, between 1838 and 1841. Costing over £30,000 to build, it was shaped like a tent and, at 277ft long and 67ft high, was the largest glass building in the world. Upon visiting in 1842, Queen Victoria noted that it was "the most stupendous and extraordinary creation imaginable".

Making Repairs to the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth, Derbyshire, late 19th century

However, the most dramatic advertisement for glazed structures to be built was, without doubt, Paxton’s Crystal Palace. Constructed for the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and open from May to October, over six million visitors flocked to see it and its success [due to its sheer size, record-breaking statistics, and speed of construction] exerted a huge influence on the popularity of conservatories.

'The Crystal Palace, view of the south side from Prince's Gate' by T. Picken. Erected in just 22 weeks, it covered 19 acres, was 5 times as long as the Palm House in Kew and contained 293,635 panes of glass – a staggering 900,000 sq.ft. of sheet-glass, at the time a third of the country’s annual output.

Standardisation was the key to its rapid assembly and manufacture. Ironwork contractors, Fox Henderson and Co., manufactured the structural iron frame as well as the wrought, cast-iron and wooden components, and developed them as identical units that could be fitted together on-site quickly. This early form of prefabrication also allowed such structures to be dismantled and reassembled somewhere else [the Crystal Palace itself was moved to Sydenham Hill in South London after the Exhibition, until its destruction by fire in 1936].

Such was the success of the Crystal Palace that the demand for conservatories was huge. It caused an almost immediate glass mania in England. Engineers and cast-iron manufacturers saw the marketing potential of prefabricated construction to private individuals – especially attractive as Victorians generally leased or rented their homes, whilst manufacturers supplied glasshouses to park departments, nurserymen, hotels and sanatoriums, and winter gardens were built all over the country.

The Crystal Palace also had an impact on planting. The Palace enclosed some existing elm trees within its structure and, contrary to expectations, these thrived under the glass as they were protected from the polluted London atmosphere. The success of the unheated Crystal Palace, the building of the Temperate House at Kew (which opened in 1863), together with continuing high fuel costs, also signalled a shift away from the predominantly tropical plant collections of the 1840's to the more temperate ones of the next decades.

In the years following the Great Exhibition, the glasshouse industry boomed. Off-the-shelf conservatories could be bought from the growing band of professional conservatory manufacturers who were entering this competitive market – such as Gray, Ormson and Brown, Foster and Pearson, J. Weeks, Boulton and Paul, and Messenger & Co.

Plate No. 8, conservatory designs. From Messenger & Co.’s 'Artistic Conservatories' from designs by E.W. Godwin, & Maurice B. Adams, 1880, intended to "awaken in persons of taste, a desire for something more artistic in design …and by our moderate prices to bring within the reach of all an artistic instead of an ugly house for their flowers"

The manufacturers generally worked to a few basic shapes which could be adapted to suit customers’ requirements, and this basic formula changed little between 1850 and 1920. In horticultural and gardening journals, conservatory manufacturers advertised all types of glasshouses and ancillary products. Practical advice was also available; the Essex firm of Crompton & F.A. Fawkes Limited supplied conservatories around the country and partner, Frank Fawkes, wrote Horticultural Buildings (1886) which included architectural, horticultural, and even legal information for the conservatory owner, as well as advice on how best to use furniture and floor tiles in the "most attractive and advantageous" manner.

Conservatories of wrought and cast-iron continued to be more expensive than their wooden counterparts, but their elegance made them popular with both owners and architects despite problems with condensation, heat-loss and the need for constant maintenance. Professional gardeners tended to prefer wooden structures but, by the latter part of the 19th century, manufacturers were recommending conservatories built from a combination of wood and iron.

Advertisement for J. Weeks & Co., c. late 19th century

Major manufacturers’ brochures also read like an extract from Who’s Who, with a selection of Earls, Dukes and Lords listed as clients. Messenger & Co.’s brochure of 1890 also included commissions for the Royal Horticultural Society and the Royal Exotic Nurseries in South Kensington. Such was the popularity of conservatories that manufacturers also produced cheaper alternatives for those of lesser means, such as small greenhouses, lean-to conservatories, or miniature window-cases.

Afternoon tea in a modest conservatory. Detail from stereoscopic card, late 19th century

Decline and Fall...and the Future

The popularity of the conservatory continued into the early 20th century but, hastened by the 1st World War and the following depression, it began to wane as families suffered financially and garden staffs were seriously depleted. Many conservatories were scrapped or destroyed to cut costs; even Paxton’s Great Conservatory didn't escape, being deliberately blown up in 1920, whilst others were allowed to fall into ruin. The conservatory manufacturing companies that had enjoyed over 60 years of success, diversified or closed.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the conservatory. After decades of destruction and neglect, recent years have seen the restoration of some wonderful Victorian conservatories and glasshouses in our great gardens, the most recent, and well-reported, being the magnificent Temperate House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which re-opened in 2018 after restoration costing some £41million.

The restored Temperate House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Inside the Temperate House at Kew. Photograph by author, 2018

Conservatories and glasshouses that still remain from their heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries are expensive to maintain, and many gardens and estates have to continually raise funds for their up-keep, so it's no surprise that domestic sized conservatories are mostly long gone.

However, there has been somewhat of a renaissance in the popularity of the domestic conservatory due to new construction techniques and technologies. And a modern ‘Victorian-style’ conservatory is again a popular addition to our homes, often adding financial value. Although I think it’s a shame that they are generally treated just as an extra room – often a dining room, playroom, or even a kitchen extension, rather than filled with exotic plants and flowers.

Further reading:

For more information on the Essex firm of Crompton & Fawkes, see Gardens Trust blog Crompton and Fawkes | The Gardens Trust which also discusses the conservatory at Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire, their only known conservatory still to exist.


* Catherine Horwood, Potted History: How Houseplants took over our Homes, 2020

** Stephen Constantine, Amateur Gardening and Popular Recreation in the 19th and 20th Centuries (1981) in the Journal of Social History.


The Conservatory in Victorian Literature by Michael Waters, Journal of Garden History, vol.2, no.3, 1982

A History of Greenhouses, Orangeries and Conservatories by May Woods, 1990

The Glasshouse by John Hix, 1996

Occasional Papers from The RHS Lindley Library: The architectural, horticultural and social history of glasshouses, Vol 17, October 2019

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Jul 24, 2022

Fascinating as ever - and gorgeous illustrations!

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