Curious Questions: Why does Kew Gardens have a giant pagoda?

The Pagoda at Kew Gardens, designed by Sir William Chambers, is one of the most famous, yet most incongruous landmarks at one of the world's most famous gardens. So why is it there? Jack Watkins explains.

Kew Gardens has a multi-layered history. Its varied roles as a royal retreat, landscaped park, exotic plant collection, international botanical institution and place of public education, relaxation and enjoyment of floral and arboreal splendour, have involved a succession of important names.

The Chinese pagoda in Kew Gardens stands 163ft high — some ten storeys.

To cite William Kent, William Aiton, Sir Joseph Banks, Decimus Burton, Richard Turner and Sir William Hooker barely scratches the surface. However, in the 300th year of his birth, it’s fitting to remember Sir William Chambers (1723–96), the creator of the great Pagoda and a major figure in the ornamentation of the estate in the years before the Royal Botanical Gardens opened to the public in 1841.

Towards the end of his life, Frederick, Prince of Wales, had established a plant collection at Kew, but, after his sudden death in 1751, it was his widow, the Dowager Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, advised by the 3rd Earl of Bute, who extended the gardens. The Anglo-Swede Chambers (he was made a Knight of the Polar Star by the King of Sweden in 1771, after which he was allowed to assume the title of an English knight) entered the royal employment in 1757, doubling up as the Dowager Princess’s official architect and architectural tutor to the Prince of Wales (the future George III).

Kew Gardens Constable Rob Stillwell looks out over The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from the top floor of the Pagoda. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

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Chambers had spent time in China when in the service of the Swedish East India Company and had studied architecture in Paris and Rome. His enthusiasm for Chinese buildings, artefacts and garden design came at a time when interest in chinoiserie among the British aristocracy was high. Chambers’s Designs of Chinese Buildings, which was published at about this time, included a chapter on the layout of Chinese gardens, commending their ‘diversity’ and ‘variety of scenes’.

A House of Confucius and a Chinese Arch (probably designed by Joseph Goupy, although possibly by Chambers) were already extant as follies in the royal gardens at Kew and, by about 1760, Chambers had enlarged on the fanciful setting by adding an Aviary, Menagerie and Pavilion, all in the Chinese style.

View of the Wilderness at Kew, 1763, by William Marlow. (Photo by Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Horace Walpole, visiting the following year, noted the Dowager Princess had begun ‘a very high tower in the garden built after the model of the towers of Pekin, Nanking etc’. This was the Pagoda, which the generally conservative, neo-Classically inclined Chambers flanked with a Moorish Alhambra and a Mosque. Temples were erected, too, with the object of creating a walk linked by several Picturesque or Classical follies, as if the viewer was embarking on a Grand Tour within a single garden.

However, the major eyecatcher was the Pagoda, 163ft high, its 10 storeys successively diminishing in diameter and height as it soared upwards.

The projecting roofs were adorned with glazed tiles and 80 golden dragons with bells in their mouths. Glinting and chiming in the breeze, and immediately painted by Richard Wilson (Kew Gardens: The Pagoda and Bridge), the structure caused a sensation upon its opening in the summer of 1762, although many expressed concerns about its stability.

Kew Gardens: The Pagoda and Bridge painted in 1762 by Richard Wilson (1714-1782) (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Swedish botanist Daniel Solander, among the visitors, recorded that: ‘All thought that a building so much out of proportion should have fallen down before it was finished & no one believed it wd stand the terrible thunderstorms & tempests which we experienced three months ago.’

Yet, although Walpole scoffed that it was made of ‘Act-of-Parliament brick’, the Pagoda was sturdy enough for holes in the floors to be cut during the Second World War, enabling bomb designers to drop models of their inventions from top to bottom to study their flight behaviour. The Pagoda has endured and remains one of Kew’s most significant, most loved landscape features.

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