Why does Kew Gardens have a giant pagoda?

The Kew Gardens Pagoda, designed by Sir William Chambers, is one of the most famous yet most ridiculous sights in one of the most famous gardens in the world. So why is it there? Jack Watkins explains.

Kew Gardens has a multi-layered history. Its various roles as a royal retreat, a landscape park, a collection of exotic plants, an international botanical institution and a place of public education, relaxation and enjoyment of floral and tree splendor have attracted the attention of a number of important names.

The Chinese Pagoda in Kew Gardens is 163 feet high, about ten stories high.

Quotations from William Kent, William Ayton, Sir Joseph Banks, Decimus Burton, Richard Turner, and Sir William Hooker hardly scratch the surface. However, on the 300th anniversary of his birth, it is appropriate to remember Sir William Chambers (1723–1796), builder of the great pagoda and a major figure in the decoration of the estate in the years before the Royal Botanic Gardens were opened to the public. public in 1841.

Towards the end of his life, Frederick, Prince of Wales, amassed a collection of plants at Kew, but after his sudden death in 1751, it was his widow, Dowager Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, on the advice of the 3rd Earl of Bute, who expanded the gardens. The Anglo-Swedish Chambers (in 1771 the King of Sweden made him a Knight of the North Star, after which he was allowed to take the title of an English knight) entered the royal service in 1757, taking the position of Princess Dowager. official architect and architectural mentor to the Prince of Wales (the future George III).

Kew Gardens constable Rob Stillwell looks down on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew from the top floor of the pagoda. (Photo by Peter McDiarmid/Getty Images)

Chambers spent time in China while serving with the Swedish East India Company and studied architecture in Paris and Rome. His enthusiasm for Chinese buildings, artefacts and garden design came at a time when interest in chinoiserie was high among the British aristocracy. Chambers Chinese building projectswhich was published around this time, included a chapter on the layout of Chinese gardens, praising their “variety” and “variety of scenes”.

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The Confucius House and the Chinese Arch (probably designed by Joseph Goupy, though possibly Chambers as well) already existed as a frenzy in the royal gardens at Kew, and by about 1760 Chambers expanded the quaint setting by adding an aviary, a menagerie. and a pavilion, all in Chinese style.

View of the desert in Kew, 1763, William Marlow. (Photo by Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Horace Walpole, who visited the following year, noted that the Princess Dowager began “a very tall tower in the garden, modeled after the towers of Peking, Nanjing, etc.” It was the Pagoda, which was surrounded by the generally conservative, neoclassical-minded Chambers with the Moorish Alhambra and the mosque. The temples were also erected with the aim of creating a walk connected by several pictorial or classical follies, as if the viewer were on a great journey within the confines of a single garden.

However, the main attraction was the 163-foot-tall Pagoda, its 10 floors successively decreasing in diameter and height as it soared upwards.

The projecting roofs were decorated with glazed tiles and 80 golden dragons with bells in their mouths. Shiny and chiming in the wind, and immediately drawn by Richard Wilson (Kew Gardens: pagoda and bridge), the structure made a splash when it opened in the summer of 1762, although many expressed concerns about its sustainability.

Kew Gardens: pagoda and bridge painted in 1762 by Richard Wilson (1714-1782) (Photo: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Swedish botanist Daniel Solander, among the visitors, recorded that: “Everyone thought that such a disproportionate building should have collapsed before it was finished, and no one believed that it would withstand the terrible thunderstorms and storms that we experienced three months ago . .’

However, although Walpole scoffed that it was made of “Brick by Act of Parliament”, the pagoda was strong enough that holes could be cut into its floor during World War II, allowing bomb designers to drop models of their inventions from above. down. bottom to study their behavior in flight. The pagoda has survived and remains one of Kew’s most significant and beloved landmarks.

Pagoda at Kew Gardens: what the critics said

Our capital is more walkable than you might expect, with meadows, paths, unexpected sculptures, and gorgeous houses.

The hugely successful 19th century plant growing on the once barren Ascension Island provides us with lessons today, Charles says.

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