Friday, 9 March 2012

Orangery Origins and Today

The Orangery at Longleat

The other day I went for an initial site visit to a new assignment; to uncover the history of a fine country house in the West Country.  It was at least eighteenth century but with a substantial Victorian addition on the front. 

The owners had recently had what I will call in general terms a glazed room attached to the rear elevation. It was a stylish construction; a combination of timber, brick and glass in a square formation and a hipped partially-glazed roof.  Given the low-ceilings and dark rooms of the rear of the eighteenth century part of the building it was much a much-needed and appropriate addition to the whole house. However, I was struck by the fact that it was referred to it as an “Orangery”. The designation of rooms and their names can change over time and this has certainly happened with this part of a house. 

These days a glazed construction on a house could be an Orangery, a Conservatory, a Garden Room or a Sun Room. Having said that, I suppose an Orangery can be one purely through its use. If you grow oranges and other similar citrus fruit, then wherever they are growing is an orangery and the style of housing is irrelevant. However, speaking architecturally and historically, we can be a little more specific.

Orangery origins can be found in France and Italy and they have been in England since the sixteenth century. However, it was the social and cultural influence of the Dutch during the reign of William III that brought this piece of garden history to wider popularity, albeit among the high strata of society. 

Royalty and the nobility at this time would have an Orangery constructed in the grounds of their country houses to grow precious tropical fruit coming from lands around the globe. These new fruits needed warmth to thrive and the buildings were constructed to provide the required environment. The most popular fruit was the orange and so, simply, this fruit gave the name. Fine examples of Orangeries are at Kenwood House in North London, Sir William's Chamber's Orangery at The Botanical Gardens at Kew and Vanbrugh's 1704 design at Kensington Palace. All these are open to the public.

The Crystal Palace

Early glass making technology meant producing large quantities of glass was difficult and expensive and not easy to use in construction to any great extent. Orangeries therefore tended to have stone-built parapet walls but with large vertical sliding sash windows to control temperature. They would also have a glass roof on timber rafters. In addition, orangeries were usually separate from the main house. So in reality a genuine orangery tends to be pre-nineteenth century, of this particular style and very much detached.

In the mid-nineteenth century, glass houses that were attached to the side of a house, and where plants of all kinds were cultivated, became popular, beyond the social boundaries of the aristocracy and landed classes. This popularity occurred thanks to the abolition of glass tax in 1845 and also improvements in technology that led to the production of sheet glass and larger-scale cast iron manufacture. Paxton's Crystal Palace, constructed for the 1851 Great Exhibition was a major influence on its popularity.

So what makes an Orangery today? It is probably the proportion of glass to other building materials and the partially glazed hipped roof and its more square form or maybe it is just a matter of taste...

A Modern Orangery ©Vale Garden Houses Ltd