The Versailles Orangerie was built between 1684 and 1686, before the palace was even begun. It housed a thousand trees in boxes, mostly citrus trees, but also olives, oleanders and palms. From May to October the plants were moved out into Parterre Bas to bask in the sunshine. (Imagine the effort carrying those trees in and out every year!)
Sweet oranges were a luxury in 15th/16th century Europe. So much so, that even the number of slices a dignitary was entitled to was pre-determined by cookbooks. The first French orangery was built by Charles VIII of France at Chateau of Amboise and possibly linked to the voyages of Vasco de Gama to the East. Sour oranges had been around since Roman times, but when the Empire fell, they were forgotten in Europe until the Arabs arrived in Spain. By pruning the orange trees, and controlling water and nutrients, the French gardeners were able to encourage orange trees to bloom all year. However, they still needed shelter and protection from the winter cold – so where to put them?
Lemons originated from Asia and were introduced in Roman times but not widely cultivated. They came back again with the Arabs, especially around the Mediterranean Sea. They were used in Islamic gardens as an ornamental plant between 1000 and 1150. In wasn’t until the 15th century that cultivation really took off in places like Genoa and Padua. The Italian Renaissance coincided with advances in glass-making in Italy and this led to the construction of orangeries – similar to greenhouses, but more like conservatories.
The rise in exotic fruits continued with 17th Century merchants bringing back bananas (first recorded sales in 1633) and pomegranates. Not only was the fruit a symbol of wealth, so was the extensive glass used in the orangery. By the end of the Eight Years War, Germany, France and Holland were seeing their first orangeries.
Orangeries face south, for warmth, and have a north facing brick wall that retains the heat. Straw was used for insulation and in northern Europe, an oven for extra heat. Wooden shutters for the nights, and some luxurious ones had underfloor heating. Lovely. Not all orangeries were permanent structures. Some were temporary and removed during the summer months, and eventually, as their popularity and architecture improved, they became more like summerhouses or follies with ornaments and grottoes.
Kensington Palace Orangery was built in 1704 for Queen Mary’s sister, Anne, who later became queen herself. Anne used it for entertaining and parties. It was constructed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, who built six churches in East London. These days, it’s a restaurant.
Kew Gardens Orangery was build in 1761 and is 28 by 10 metres. It was designed by Sir William Chambers. However, not enough light was produced for the wintering plants, so they were moved out. Now it’s a … restaurant.
Ham House Orangery was built in 1670s and the original design was quite narrow. Used for storing citrus fruit over the winter… it’s now a café.
It took six years to build Margam Park Orangery, finished in 1787. It housed a hundred trees. It’s now used for … weddings.
At Ickworth House the west wing, which was intended as a orangery, gallery and servants’ quarters ended up as an empty shell used for storage until renovated in 2005. Now it contains a shop, restaurant, and yes, an actual orangery!
So are any orangeries actually in use? Well definitely at Belton House. Designed by Jeffry Wyatville in 1810 and built in 1820, it is the first cast iron orangery in England with the woodwork painted green, not white. It is set in an Italian garden, which is entirely suitable, and still undergoing restoration.
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