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Get a taste of the tropics at Kew Gardens. The rare beauty of orchids is on show in the Princess of Wales Conservatory as part of the annual Orchid Festival which runs until 6th March. And as was the case last year, the festival once again features a series of late openings giving visitors the chance to experience the colourful display after dark. Admission charge applies – for more information on dates and times, see www.kew.org. PICTURES: Jeff Eden/RBG Kew.

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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

• The British Library has paid £9 million for a 7th century text, the St Cuthbert Gospel, which is also the oldest intact European book. The acquisition follows the library’s most successful fund-raising effort ever – it included a £4.5 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The book – a Gospel of John bound in beautifully tooled red leather – was produced in north-east England in the late 7th century and was placed in the saint’s coffin after his death on the Isle of Lindisfarne in 698. It was retrieved when the coffin was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104. The Gospel is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the library in St Pancras and following a conservation review, it is anticipated it will soon be displayed with the pages open for the first time. There will be a public event celebrating the acquisition on 15th May. For more, see www.bl.uk/whatson/events/may12/index.html.

• London this week marked 100 days until the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. This included unveiling the latest installation of the Olympic rings – made of 20,000 plants the 50 metre long rings are located in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the city’s west and can be seen from planes on the Heathrow flight path. The organising committee also announced the Red Arrows aerobatic display team will perform a nine-ship flypast in ‘big battle’ formation on the day of the Opening Ceremony (27th July) and stated that the games motto will be ‘Inspire a Generation’. For more, see www.london2012.com.

• The Museum of London’s archaeological archive – known as the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC) – is officially the largest in the world according to Guinness World Records. The archive contains more than five million artefacts and the records of almost 8,500 excavations dating back to 1830. Items in the archive include shoes dating back to Roman times, a 200-year-old set of false teeth, ‘witching bottles’ including one with human hair and toenails, and coffin plates from London’s cemeteries. The world record has been recorded as part of World Record London, a series of world record breaking events being held in the run-up to the Olympics. Others have included the Faberge Big Egg Hunt.

• Thousands of people are expected to take part in the Virgin London Marathon this Sunday. The 26.2 mile route starts in Blackheath, passes through Woolwich and Greenwich and crosses the Thames at Tower Bridge before looping around the east end of London, through Canary Wharf, and the west along The Highway (formerly known as The Ratcliffe Highway) and Embankment to Parliament Square, Birdcage Walk and finally to Buckingham Palace. The first London marathon was run in 1981. For more, see www.virginlondonmarathon.com.

• On Now: Turner Inspired – In the Light of Claude. The first major presentation of 17th century artist Claude Gellée’s influence on the English romantic artist J M W Turner, the exhibition focuses on Claude-inspired themes which run through Turner’s work including “the evocation of light and air in landscape, the effect of light upon water and his often radical reworking of contemporary scenes”. The display includes works from large scale oils on canvas through to leaves from Turner’s pocket sketchbooks. Interestingly, the exhibition also explores the story behind the so-called Turner Bequest – that on his death, Turner linked himself to Claude forever by leaving the National Gallery two pictures – Dido building Carthage (1815) and Sun rising through Vapour: Fishermen cleaning and selling Fish (before 1807) –  on condition that they were hung between two pictures by Claude, Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648) and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca (1648). Runs until 5th June. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

An Australian landscape constructed in the forecourt of the British Museum as part of the museum’s Australian Season. The landscape takes the intrepid on a journey across the vast Australian continent through the arid red desert of the red centre to the granite outcrops of the country’s west coast. The plants include iconic Australian flora such as the kangaroo paw, wattle, coast banksia, gums and ferns as well as a Wollemi pine. The landscape is the fourth created in the museum’s forecourt under a partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. But time is running out to see it – the garden will disappear on 16th October. Other events held at the museum as part of Australian Season have included an exhibition of Australian artworks and handcrafted baskets. Admission to the garden is free. For more, visit www.britishmuseum.org.