English gardener. Discovered by William Spencer (1790–1858) 6th Duke (from 1811) of Devonshire, he was appointed (1826) Head Gardener at Chatsworth, Derbys., where he remained for 30 years, cultivating plants, tending and improving the gardens, and designing buildings. Entirely self-taught, his main influences were Loudon and Payne Knight. Encouraged by the Duke, he published The Horticultural Register (1831–5) and Paxton's Magazine of Botany and Flowering Plants (1834–49).
In 1831 he began constructing conservatories at Chatsworth, and used the ridge-and-furrow system of glazed roofs invented by Loudon (1817), patenting his own variation in 1850. As a designer he made his reputation with the elegant ‘Great Stove’ conservatory at Chatsworth (1836–40—destroyed 1920), then the biggest glass-house in Europe, using sheet-glass, the manufacture of which had recently been perfected by Chance Bros. of Birmingham. The curved ridge-and-furrow glazed timber roof was carried on arched laminated-timber frames supported on cast-iron columns and buttressed by the side arches over the flanking aisles. Although Decimus Burton was involved in a consultative capacity, the design was essentially Paxton's, who was to turn more and more to designing buildings.
He created the village of Edensor, near Chatsworth (1838–48), drawing on a range of styles, mostly Italianate, for the houses (John Robertson (fl. 1829–50), Loudon's draughtsman (from 1829), helped to prepare drawings for them), and designed Prince's Park, Liverpool (1842–4), and Birkenhead Park, Ches. (1843–7), the last one of the first English public parks, the layout of which was an influence on F. L. Olmsted. For these works, and also the important cemetery at Coventry (1845), Robertson again provided essential collaboration. In 1849–50 Paxton constructed a special conservatory for the large-leaved Victoria regia (now Victoria amazonica) lily, in which that exotic plant flowered for the first time in England. The structural advances in the lily-house helped in the creation of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition, London (designed and built 1850–1), for which Paxton drew on his experiences of greenhouses at Chatsworth. That vast building was remarkable for several reasons: it was designed so that all its constituent parts could be prefabricated, erected, and dismantled on site, the first example of a very large-scale industrialized building; it only took just over six months to build; and it was the model for a series of huge C19 exhibition buildings. It earned Paxton his knighthood in 1851. After Robertson left Paxton's office, the latter entered into partnership in 1847 with his son-in-law, George Henry Stokes (1827–74), and together they laid out the gardens beside the re-erected and enlarged (1852–4) Crystal Palace at Sydenham, South London, which were widely admired. From 1851 Paxton concentrated on his work as an architect, and he and Stokes designed Mentmore Towers, Bucks. (1851–4), a sumptuous country-house in the Jacobethan style for the Rothschild family. He carried out extensive alterations to the Devonshires' Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford, Ireland (1850–8), and designed the house and gardens at Ferrières, near Paris (1853–9), again for the Rothschilds, in a French Renaissance style. As noted above, Paxton was a significant figure in the creation of public parks: among his designs in this field (apart from those at Liverpool and Birkenhead) were the parks at Dundee, Dunfermline, Glasgow, Halifax, and, of course, Sydenham.