pagoda

News this week that Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Botanic Gardens are embarking on a two year project to restore eighty decorative dragons to the Kew Pagoda has led us to take a look at the history of the exotic tower set amid the trees.

pagoda15Designed by architect Sir William Chambers (one of his drawings is depicted here), the pagoda was built in 1762 during the eighteenth century craze for Chinoiserie and was probably commissioned by Princess Augusta as part of the ongoing works she undertook in the gardens after the death of her husband Prince Frederick, eldest son of King George II and Queen Caroline.

Standing 163 feet (or almost 50 metres) high, the 10 storey pagoda was originally decorated with eighty golden dragons. It was designed to be the high point of a world tour through the gardens which also took in Roman ruins and Arabic mosques.

While the pagoda remains, the dragons were only on the structure for some 22 years before being removed in 1784 during roof repairs. Thanks to rumours they were made of solid gold, it was suggested they were sold off to pay the debts of the Prince Regent (the future King George IV), but experts say the wooden figures had simply rotted and so had to be removed.

Following their removal, the dragons subsequently disappeared and despite several attempts to find them – including one by Decimus Burton, architect of the famous Palm House (for more on that, see our earlier post), in 1843 – they have never been found.

Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Botanic Gardens have now decided to replace them with new ones, drawing on contemporary accounts and drawings and using a team of specialist craftsmen to create them.

The restored pagoda – complete with new dragons – will be open to the public in 2017.

It is one of several ornamental buildings still located in the gardens. Others include a Japanese gateway and a Japanese wooden house called a minka.

WHERE: The Great Pagoda, Kew Gardens (nearest Tube station is Kew Gardens); WHEN: 10am daily (closing times vary – see websites for details); COST: £16.50 adults/£13 concessions/children £3.50 (discounts apply for online bookings); WEBSITE: www.kew.org.

PICTURES: RBG Kew

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Duke-of-YorkA monument commemorating Prince Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany and commander-in-chief of the British Army during the French Revolutionary wars – the Duke of York Column in St James’s Park – has had a makeover. The monument, which was erected in 1834, is the tallest in the Royal Parks. It features a 124 foot tall column of pink and grey Aberdeen granite designed by Benjamin Wyatt and is topped by a 14 foot tall bronze statue of the duke (thought to be the ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ referred to in the nursery rhyme), designed by Sir Richard Westmacott. The column has been cleaned while the statue, which had developed a green pigment thanks to the oxidation process which also gives the Statue of Liberty its green patina, has been repatinated, rewaxed and buffed. The monument, which cost £100,000 to refurbish, originally cost £15,760 and was funded with a day’s pay from every serving soldier. For more on St James’s Park, check out www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/st-jamess-park. PICTURE: Courtesy of Royal Parks.

With Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square stealing much of the limelight, the Duke of York’s Column in Waterloo Place tends to get overlooked. So we thought it was time we took a more in-depth look at its history.

The monument is dedicated to Prince Frederick (1763-1827), the second son of King George III and commander-in-chief of the British Army during wars which were fought between France and European powers including Britain between 1792 and 1802.

The Duke was not a successful military commander on the field – his one outing in Flanders was a disaster and is said to have resulted in him being immortalised in the song, The Grand Old Duke of York – but he is celebrated for reforming the army after his return to England.

The almost 42-metre high monument  features a larger-than-life bronze statue of the Duke dressed in the robes of the Knights of the Garter – the work of Sir Richard Westmacott – standing on the top of a granite column and gazing down a series of steps and over The Mall towards St James’s Park.

The overall monument was designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt. His design was selected by a committee from among other submissions and erected between 1830-33. While the Duke was an inveterate gambler and died deeply in debt, the British Army is said to have voted to forgo a day’s pay to fork out the £25,000 required to build the commemorative monument. It was said in jest that the height of the monument allowed the Duke to escape his creditors.

Interestingly, the hollow column contains a spiral staircase which originally gave access to a viewing platform at the top. Access was apparently prohibited after a spate of suicides.

Looking for more on statues and monuments around London – why not check out Peter Matthews’ London’s Statues and Monuments?

Celebrated in the 2002 list of 50 “Great British Trees”, the Maidenhair Tree is one of a number at Kew Gardens known as an “Old Lion” – the name collectively given to the few remaining trees with a planting date of 1762.

The Gingko biloba or Maidenhair Tree was one of the first of its species to be planted in Britain and, along with the other ‘Old Lions’, was brought from the Twickenham estate of the Duke of Argyll in 1762.

It was planted in what was then a new five acre arboretum laid out by William Aiton, employed as the gardener at the first botanic garden at Kew (this was established in 1759 at the behest of Princess Augusta, wife of Frederick, Prince of Wales – who had died in 1751 – and mother of King George III, and John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute).

Originally located against the wall of the ‘Great Stove’ glasshouse to provide it with protection, the tree has stood alone since 1861 when the glasshouse was demolished. It can now be found adjacent to the Wisteria arch close to the Secluded Garden Conservatory. Several further Gingko trees were planted in the garden in 1773 under the direction of botanist Sir Joseph Banks.

The other four ‘Old Lions’ at Kew are a False Acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia), an Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis), a Caucasian Elm (Zelkova carpinifolia), and a Pagoda Tree (Sophora japonica).

WHERE: Kew Gardens (nearest tube station is Kew Gardens); WHEN: 9.30am to 4.15pm daily (check closing times for glasshouses); COST: £13.90 adults; £11.90 concessions; children under 17 free; WEBSITE: www.kew.org.