A History of Orangeries

16 Nov
Orangeries are an attractive and effective way of bringing more light into your house while also providing you with somewhere that is sturdy and warm enough to serve as comfortable living space. Like conservatories, orangeries are sometimes referred to as “sunrooms“, which has led to some people getting confused as to the difference between the two. The difference is subtle, but easy to understand once you know it. Far less glass is used in the construction of an orangery than is used in the construction of a conservatory: although they will still prominently feature large windows and possibly a skylight.

Orangeries date back as far as the sixteenth century. Their original purpose was to provide a warm, but light-filled environment in which homeowners could grow fruit and exotic vegetables during the harsh winters of northern Europe. The orangery didn’t truly come into fashion until the seventeenth century, when merchants in countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands began importing large numbers of exotic plants for their beauty and scent.

The earliest orangeries were wooden shacks, sometimes covered with a tarpaulin, designed purely for practical rather than aesthetic reasons. As time went on, however, orangeries increasingly came to be viewed as a symbol of wealth and opulence. After all, the fruits grown within them were expensive fare and so their cultivation was generally only feasible by those who could afford a sizeable outlay. And, of course, the moment something becomes a fashion symbol is the moment it begins to become ever more extravagant. Soon, vast orangeries were being constructed in the grounds of stately homes across Europe.

It was not always an easy task. Growing plants inside is a difficult task at the best of times and in the days before reliable central heating or double glazing, many owners found it difficult to balance sufficient levels of heat and light in their orangery. An orangery is the oldest surviving structure at London’s magnificent Kensington Palace. However, even the great architect Sir William Chambers was not infallible and the light levels below the building’s solid roof made the cultivation of plants near impossible. This rather nice gallery building is today used as a restaurant; emblematic perhaps of the changing role of the orangery in our culture.

The solid roof of the Kensington Palace orangery was presumably in an effort to keep the heat in. Poor insulation was a common problem amongst earlier orangeries. In some cases open fires were necessary to provide sufficient levels of warmth. In later years, as technology improved, under floor heating made it easier to keep the plants warm. Opening windows allowed for the regulation of heat; obviously, oranges and the like required plenty of heat to grow, but all that glass could lead to the orangery becoming too hot for more delicate plants in the height of summer.

Nowadays, orangeries are used almost exclusively as sunrooms. They offer a warmth and security which, even in these days of double glazing, some find lacking in conservatories. Their thick walls and open windows offer light and views, while feeling like an integrated part of the house, rather than something that has simply been stuck on the end.

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