More than 200 years after they disappeared, the dragons have returned to Kew Garden’s Great Pagoda. The 10 storey octagonal pagoda – which, as we reported, reopened to the public in July after a four year, £5 million restoration project by Historic Royal Palaces in conjunction with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – was built in 1762 to the designs of Sir William Chambers and was a birthday gift for Princess Augusta, founder of the gardens. Used by the Georgian Royal Family to entertain visitors, it was famously adorned with 80 brightly coloured dragons but these disappeared in the 1780s. Rumours suggested they were used as payment for the Prince Regent’s gambling debts but apparently the truth is more banal – Chambers took them off when he restored the building in 1784 and they were found to be rotten. But they’re back (some of the new dragons are gilded with real gold and while some are hand carved from cedar, others were reportedly made on a 3D printer) and to celebrate their return (and the reopening of the pagoda to the public for the first time in decades, complete with a 253 step climb), we today publish some images. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.kew.org/kew-gardens/whats-on/climb-the-great-pagoda. PICTURES: © Richard Lea-Hair – Historic Royal Palaces.
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.
Designed 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