When my father was director of the RSC at Stratford, we lived in a Regency house that belonged to the theatre but had originally been built for Sir Robert Hamilton, modelled on his colonial home in India. Many directors and actors had held tenure there and musicians and secretaries were housed around the stable yard with a view into the huge kitchen garden.
My mother planted the conservatory at the side of the house and you could tell who had been lingering there by the pale-blue plumbago flowers sticking to their clothes. It was wild but safe — and that’s really the point about conservatories. While her garden was planted with clipped Le Nôtre-style box hedges and disciplined standard roses lining gravel paths, the conservatory was a riot of lush foliage and blossom, and the sun warmed the scent of flowers into a heady concoction in the summer.
You’ll understand why, subsequently, whenever I put a key in my own front door, I look up at the house and think ‘surely there must be some mistake?’ And you’ll know why, if I ever win the lottery, a conservatory will feature on my shopping list.
The first conservatories in Britain were at the Oxford Botanical and Chelsea Physic gardens, and on large country estates. From about 1750, the ten-acre nurseries lining the King’s Road in Chelsea became chic meeting places where highly luxurious and terrifically exciting new plants could be found. The ‘Old Purple’ chrysanthemum gathered from China by scouts from Colvill’s nursery was snapped up by every duke, earl and marchioness for their pleasure gardens. Lee and Kennedy at the Vineyard nursery in Fulham supplied vast quantities of plants to the Empress Josephine at Malmaison, and were issued with special passports to travel to and from France during the Napoleonic wars.
After the tax on glass was lifted in 1845 and Paxton built the Crystal Palace in 1851 (based on his Great Conservatory at Chatsworth) a wider British public hardly needed persuading of the attractions of their very own conservatory.
Most conservatories today are mouldy uPVC horrors, or naff neo-Victorian confections. There are also perfectly tasteful kitchen or family-room extensions with lantern roofs, or sleek contemporary glass structures, which maybe house collections of contemporary sculpture. None of them seem to feature plants. This spring the Nature Look is big news in interiors, with oversized leafy patterns, floral motifs and an accent on the colour green — so maybe it’s time to welcome plants in conservatories again.
Companies that have reputations for building conservatories properly are J.R. Willoughby, Bartholomew, Hampton and Richmond Oak. The Trombé Company creates contemporary glass architecture, which they even build on to 14th-century listed towers. Interior designer Bill Bennette has worked on several conservatories. ‘The big issues are fading finishes and a build-up of heat. Suitable glass, electrically controlled sunblinds and cooling vents are important for comfort.’ He rates Town & Country most highly for proper conservatories.
The best-known company is probably Marston & Langinger, now nearly 30 years old. They are associated with the gingerbread style, but managing director Peter Marston, who studied fine art at St Martins, sets the record straight. ‘Today our conservatories are much more restrained,’ he says. ‘We use ecologically conscious woods and paint and our glass buildings are as well insulated as brick walls were 20 years ago.’ He’s currently building a contemporary house of glass in San Francisco.
Prices for conservatories in the North and Midlands are lower than in the South, where on average they start at £7,000, according to AMA research; but it’s a deceptive figure and doesn’t include brickwork or VAT. If you’ve got a listed building, you don’t have to pay VAT on extensions at all. Many think conservatories, like extra bedrooms, add value to a house — but the truth is that if properly built, they can help sell a house but they won’t raise its price.
My childhood conservatory was chilly in winter, had cracked putty around many panes, and a lovely worn stone floor. But if I win the lottery, I’ll have reinforced solar glass, hidden steel core, automatic temperature-control system, underfloor heating, rain sensors which automatically close roof ventilators, high-tech blinds, an audio system, and huge doors opening on to a terrace. Someone else will sort the planning permission and building regulation compliance, especially the new Part L regulations for energy conservation.
I’ll grow medicinal and culinary herbs, fruits, pulses, vegetables and colourful flowers for my dining table, which will be just a few yards away. I will probably never leave home again.