The Harlaxton Conservatory
A speech presented at the time of Renewal, June 2005
As noted by Pamela Tudor-Craig in her comments at the time of an earlier conservatory project, “conservatories are, of their nature, irresponsible, irrepressible buildings more than most architectural designs, subject to mortality.” The Harlaxton Conservatory has great historical significance, being among the first to follow Joseph Paxton’s 1837 Great Conservatory at Chatsworth (sadly demolished in 1920 in an expression of post-World War I austerity). The transition from Orangeries—characterized by glass walls, but roof lines within the main house—to Conservatories—characterized by a glass roof as well, and therefore a separate, but joined structure—was made possible by new technologies in iron working and glass making. Plant expeditions in the early 1800s to India and the Pacific enlarged the range of tropical plants available for cultivation, also adding a rich layer to the “gratifying evidence of the growing British Empire.”
Salvin’s original drawings for Harlaxton Manor did not include a conservatory, but a small, open-air loggia. By 1838, Burn and Bryce had taken over and a conservatory was added, following the lead of other great houses being constructed at the time. As is true throughout the house, the Harlaxton Conservatory is a wild marriage of design, function, and Gregory Gregory’s collection of sculpture, columns, and pediments. For example, a pair of Baroque putti is divided, one as the mantelpiece in the anteroom to the Long Gallery and one in a shell structure in the Conservatory. Tudor-Craig writes, “the mighty pillars, entablatures, architraves, pediments, and whatnots, with apparently nothing to support, appear about to topple for lack of actual weight upon them. Gables and curlicues screen mere spindles of glass.”
Like the house itself, there is nothing elsewhere like the Harlaxton Conservatory. It is unique.
Prior to this work, the last major improvements were made to the Conservatory in 1978-79. Graham Cook has mentioned some of the work carried out at that time. The present renovation has attended to matters not addressed then, including high-level stone work and rotted timbers. Together, these two projects have brought this 1840 era building into a high level of structural integrity.
As is true with the Manor itself, the Conservatory moves into the future with a changed purpose, all the while honouring its storied past. Once it held rare and beautiful plants, brought from exotic places, to entertain and amuse guests and residents of the great country house. It provided an indoor landscape walk when weather prevented the daily stroll in the contrived natural gardens and parklands surrounding the Manor.
Now, as a part of the great house which serves as a part of a great educational program, this magnificent structure is a teacher, a place to learn. Students and classes will meet and study here, with access to the world through means of wireless internet connections. Special music concerts and lectures will be held in these glass rooms. Elegant dinners and receptions for weddings and special guests, just like yourselves tonight, will find their place in this Conservatory.
Oh, and there will be urns and plants and a statue or two, gracing this structure, and calling to mind and heart its history. While thanking every person here for his or her part in this fine renewal of the Conservatory of Harlaxton Manor, we welcome you to join us in seeing an exciting future come to pass.