The lives of three German princesses whose marriages into the British royal family during the Georgian era placed them right at the heart of progressive thinking in 18th century Britain are the subject of a new exhibition which opens at Kensington Palace today. Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World looks at how these three women – committed patrons of the arts and sciences – “broke the mould” in terms of their contributions to society, through everything from advocating for the latest scientific and medical advances to supporting the work of charities, changing forever the role women played in the British royal family. Caroline and Charlotte became queens consort to King George I and King George III respectively while Princess Augusta was at various times Princess of Wales, Regent and Princess Dowager (as mother to King George III) and between them, they had more than 30 children. But alongside their busy family lives, they also were at the centre of glittering courts where the likes of writers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, scientist Isaac Newton and composer George Frideric Handel as well as successive Prime Ministers and international statesmen were welcomed. The display features almost 200 objects owned by the princesses, such as Charlotte’s hand-embroidered needlework pocketbook, pastels painted by their children and artworks and fine ceramics commissioned by some of the greatest artists and craftsmen of their day. The exhibition, which has previously been at the Yale Center for British Art, runs until 12th November. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace/.

The UK’s first major exhibition featuring the watercolours of Anglo-American artist John Singer Sargent in almost 100 years has opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. Sargent: The Watercolours features almost 80 works produced between 1900 and 1918, what was arguably his greatest period of watercolour production. Sargent mastered the art during expeditions in southern Europe and the Middle East and the show features landscapes, architecture and figurative scenes, drawing attention to the most radical aspects of his work – his use of close-up, his unusual use of perspective and the dynamic poses of his figures. The works include The Church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice (c1904-1909), the mountain landscape Bed of a Torrent (1904), and figure study The lady with the umbrella (1911). The exhibition runs until 8th October. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk. PICTURE: John Singer Sargent – Pool in the Garden of La Granja, c. 1903, Private Collection

The 249th Summer Exhibition has opened at the Royal Academy with Mark Wallinger, Yinka Shonibare and Antony Gormley among those with works on show. About 1,200 works are featured in the display with highlights including Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture VI, a new large scale work from Gilbert & George’s ‘Beard Speak’ series and, for the first time, a focus on construction coordination drawings, showing the full complexity of a building, in the Architecture Gallery. Runs until 20th August. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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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

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.