It was one of the jewels in the crown of Georgian London: a building so unusual that a suspicious public were unconvinced it would remain standing when it was built in 1762. Designed at the height of the eighteenth century craze for Chinoiserie, The Great Pagoda at Kew was famously adorned with eighty brightly coloured wooden dragons. The eye-catching dragons were the talk of the town for twenty years, before disappearing in the 1780s, rumoured to be payment for the Prince Regent’s gambling debts.
Today, Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, have announced that the dragons are set to return to Kew Pagoda once more as part of a conservation project which will see the building returned to its 18th century splendour. Heritage charity Historic Royal Palaces, which has already completed major restorations of Kew Palace (King George III’s former home) and the Royal Kitchens within Kew Gardens, will be undertaking a two year project to return the Pagoda to its former glory. Offering one of the earliest and finest bird’s eye views of London, the Pagoda is expected to re-open to the public permanently in 2017.
Probably commissioned by Princess Augusta, and designed by architect Sir William Chambers, Londoners and tourists alike flocked to see the striking 163ft (nearly 50m) tall building, which formed part of a homage to the Grand Tour in the famous gardens. Observers were most impressed by the seemingly golden dragons, designed to dazzle. Though memorable, the dragons were removed in 1784, when repairs were undertaken to the building’s roof. Though rumoured to have been payment for the Prince Regent’s debts, experts believe that, being made of wood, they had simply rotted over time.
Remarkably, in spite of their fame, none of the eighty dragons appear to have survived, beginning a two hundred year hunt to rediscover or replace them. The architect who designed the Palm House – Decimus Burton – made an attempt as early as 1843, and right up to the 1970s, the mystery of the lost dragons and the question of how to replicate them was still being discussed. Finally in 2017, it is anticipated that eighty new dragons will adorn the Pagoda once more.
Craig Hatto, Project Lead, Historic Royal Palaces, said,
‘It has been fascinating to piece together the story of the elusive dragons, missing from this remarkable building for over two centuries. Using tantalising contemporary accounts and drawings, and taking inspiration from surviving eighteenth century dragons in houses and museums across Europe, we’ll be pulling together a team of specialist craftsmen to ensure the new dragons are as faithful to the original design as possible.’
Paul Gray, Palaces Group Director, Historic Royal Palaces, said,
‘We’re excited to be restoring The Great Pagoda at Kew to its former glory over the next two years. The Pagoda forms an important part of Kew’s fascinating royal history, which we already explore at Kew Palace, the Royal Kitchens and Queen Charlotte’s Cottage. We look forward to working with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew towards opening this wonderful building for the public to enjoy in 2017.’
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The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding collections as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international and a top London visitor attraction. Kew’s 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, and Kew’s Sussex botanic garden, Wakehurst Place, attract over 1.5 million visits every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst Place is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. Kew receives approximately just under half of its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Further funding needed to support Kew’s vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales. For more information, visit kew.org.uk
Once the restoration of The Great Pagoda has been completed in 2017 and the Temperate House reopens in 2018, the south end of Kew Gardens will be a major draw, enticing visitors to view Kew’s newly landscaped gardens and heritage architecture in all its renewed glory.