A history of the conservatory

Old conservatory roof

The quick-fit, attainable conservatories that we know of today seem to have come a long way from the original awe inspiring opulent glasshouses of history. Leading up to the mid 19th century a ‘conservatory’ was simply an object of desire to the majority, as the introduction of the glass and window tax made even the smallest glasshouse out of reach to everyone bar the famously wealthy.

Where did the idea originate?

The word conservatory stems from the Italian word, ‘conservo’, meaning to preserve and the Latin word ‘ory’, meaning a place for. In 13th century Italy a solution was needed to store the tropical plants and fruits that were brought home by the explorers of the time. It followed that conservatories became a place that could nurture and cultivate tropical fruits and plants for medicinal research as well as food. This is where the term ‘Orangery’ originated.

In the 16th century, as European travel became more accessible, so did the spread of European cultures. One of these was the construction of large greenhouses by the rich nobility so they could grow exotic citrus fruits.

How the conservatory evolved

With the introduction of glass manufacture, the 18th century saw constructions of such magnificence in England and the Netherlands that they are still regarded as monuments of architectural beauty today. Although these structures were originally used for growing fruits and plants, it wasn’t unusual for these plants to be removed in the summer months and the vast glass panelled rooms to be used for entertaining. This was the beginnings of the modern, multi-use conservatory that we know today.

If we look at some of the modern day conservatory names they follow the style trends of the era including:

  • Victorian conservatory
  • Georgian style
  • Edwardian style.

How the modern day conservatory developed

Even though the conservatory was a popular home addition in Victorian and Edwardian times, it was still a long way off mass ownership, due to the expense and lack of large scale glass production.  

It took the huge social changes and increased financial wealth following the Industrial Revolution to truly bring the conservatory closer to many people’s reach. There were a few important factors that helped really make the difference:

  • in 1845 the glass tax was repealed
  • in 1851 the window tax was repealed
  • important innovations occurred in the machine tool industry
  • the introduction of paint mass production
  • automation of brick manufacture
  • mass production of wrought and cast iron
  • greatly improved and cost effective transport links for freight

The advanced techniques used in the manufacture of glass enabled Sir Joseph Paxton to construct Chatsworth House with what was then revolutionary – 4ft expanse sheets of glass. The innovative glass building was, for a long period, the largest glass building in the world and covered an incredible three–quarters of an acre!

One of the earliest, some say the earliest glasshouses are in Oxford, which offers a trip to “Visit inspiring herbaceous borders, glasshouses that take you around the World or simply relax in the oldest Botanic Garden in Britain.”

What’s great about the development of the conservatory is the extensive range of designs available. It’s no longer necessary to clear away half an acre of land and take out a second mortgage to add an orangery as there are plenty of options both cost effective and practical on offer.

If your interest has been piqued a little, please take a look at our Gallery of options and speak to one of our advisors. A conservatory isn’t just for plants, it’s for the whole family and much, much more.

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