Kew’s Pagoda was completed in 1762 as a gift for Princess Augusta, the founder of the Gardens. It was one of several Chinese buildings designed for Kew by Sir William Chambers, who had spent time travelling and studying the architecture of East Asia. A popular ‘folly’ of the age, it offered one of the earliest and finest bird’s eye views of London
Royal Botatanic Gardens, Kew
The Great Pagoda was completed in only six months. The speed of completion and the quality of construction were points of pride for Chambers; “the walls of the building are composed of very hard bricks…neatly laid, and with such care, that there is not the least crack or fracture in the whole structure, notwithstanding its great height, and the expedition with which it was built”. 80 gilded dragons decorated the roofs of its ten storeys although these had been removed by 1784. The height of the building impressed contemporaries; in 1762, Horace Walpole wrote to a friend, “the Pagoda at Kew begins to rise above the trees and soon you will see it from Yorkshire”.
At the time of its construction it was considered so unusual that people were unconvinced it would remain standing. Chambers studied oriental architecture in China, but when he designed Kew’s pagoda he ignored the rules. Pagodas should have an odd number of floors, traditionally seven (rather than ten), believed to represent seven steps to heaven. The Great Pagoda was the most accurate reconstruction of a Chinese building in Europe at the time. It was originally flanked by a Moorish Alhambra and a Turkish Mosque, follies that were all the rage in the great gardens of the time.
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The dragons are back at Kew after more than two centuries, tails curled, wings neatly furled to make them less of a wind catcher, gazing down with glittering eyes on the acres of gardens and thousands of visitors far below. . . . Legends insisted they were made of gem-studded enamelled bronze or even solid gold, and that they were stripped off the pagoda to settle the Prince of Wales’s gambling debts, or to decorate his extraordinary oriental-styled in Brighton. The truth was more boring. Chambers took them off when he restored the building in 1784, because although they looked magnificent, they were made of cheap pine and after a spell of atrocious weather – the Thames froze over in 1783 – they were rotten.
Their replacements, blazing in green, blue, red and gold, guard a secret. The eight at ground level were hand carved from cedar wood, but the 72 dragons on the higher floors were produced on a 3D printer. “The biggest engineering problem we had was attaching the dragons to the roofs,” Putnam said. “They didn’t worry much about health and safety in the 18th century, but the biggest of the printed ones weigh less than 10 kilos, and the wooden ones weigh a quarter tonne – to make them all in wood we’d have had to punch the original structure through and through with steel-reinforcing rods to hold them.”