George III’s Great Pagoda at Kew reopens with its ‘lost’ dragons

The Great Pagoda within the botanic gardens at Kew is once more to open to the public, restored to its Georgian glory that first caused suspicion in the British public so unfamiliar with Chinese-style architecture – and dragons!

The Great Pagoda was built in 1762 for the Royal Family in the extensive grounds of Kew Palace, and was the largest and most ambitious building in a ‘royal circuit’ of 16 structures, which mimicked styles from around the world. At the time Chinoiserie was hugely popular and the pagoda was designed by Sir William Chambers, influenced by his time he sat aboard a Swedish East India Company ship in the port of Canton, sketching what he could see from the boat.

Now, after a four-year project, Historic Royal Palaces is able to open the pagoda up once more, now it is restored to a close representation of the 18th-century building.

The Great Pagoda at Kew has been restored with its 80 dragons (Richard-Lea-Hair/HRP)

Kew Palace was a favoured residence of the Georgians; George II, who reigned 1727-60, and his wife Queen Caroline were first attracted to Kew as a home for their three eldest daughters. Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and a number of their children also spent many years here, with their learned daughters being something explored at the palace in an ongoing exhibition. George III also spent periods of his ‘madness’ here.

10 storeys high and adorned with 80 carved wooden ‘iridescent’ dragons, it was here the Royals would entertain guests in the garden and wow them with the views of London that the building structure offered in the eighteenth century. They would then take tea under its awning in the peaceful grounds of the garden.

Indeed, the King once saw the useful nature of such a towering building, taking Lord North and Lord Mansfield to the top for a ‘chat’…! But equally, the pagoda was used to impress the Archduke of Milan.

the 9th floor of the great pagoda Historic Royal Palaces / Richard Lea-Hair.

Looking north from the top of the Great Pagoda; you can see the Temperate House of the Botanic Gardens (l) (Victoria Howard)

A Georgian-costumed actor at the top of the grear pagoda, surrounded by info on the sights to be seen out the windows. victoria howard

Famous for decades, the dragons that once adorned the pagoda had disappeared by 1784, rumoured to have been payment for The Prince Regent’s gambling debts, but almost certainly because the pinewood pieces had rotted in the exposed position, helped on by the mini-ice age in the later decades of the century.

All of the replica dragons are unique, with 72 of them having been 3D printed in hardy plastic, with the primer and paint affording even greater protection. They were tested in wind tunnels to ensure an aerodynamic design and better longevity for the pieces, created by 3DS.

the dragons have returned to the pagoda at kew Historic Royal Palaces / Richard Lea-Hair.

A close up of one of the pagodas smaller dragons

The bottom eight dragons, however, have been created in the traditional way by master carvers and one more vivid piece, was the winning entry from 12-year-old Florence, who won Blue Peter’s Design a Dragon competition.

To mark the re-opening of the Great Pagoda at Kew this summer, children will be able to enter the world of dragons and dragonologists at the ‘Here Be Dragons’ exhibition, searching for the five fearsome dragons located around the gardens.

The new dragons attach with three screws in the body of the dragon, carefully hidden, whereas the originals were affixed with iron brackets. It might have also been the weight of the décor (an estimated 2.5 tonnes) that saw the dragons removed just 20 years after they were installed.

Paint sampling ensured an accurate colour scheme was used. By analysing flakes of original paint, the team were able to settle confidently on copper verdigris, the colours that were on the building in 1780s, when the dragons vanished. Using Chambers’ drawings and the Linell painting of the Great Pagoda, plus hours of archival research, HRP have represented the structure as it would have been in the short time it survived in its full glory.

The ground floor inside the great pagoda Richard-Lea-Hair/HRP)

Little repair work was actually needed for the structure, in order to bring it back to life: only 60 bricks were replaced and the penny mortar detailing is original, as are the London clay bricks, the copper roof and the balustrades.

Inside on the ground floor, you can also enjoy the automata, mechanical scenarios depicting the ‘royal route’ in miniature’, and admiring the artwork by Lucille Clerc, and stories of the Great Pagoda’s past.

During the second world war, the military tested smoke bombs in the pagoda following the bloody tragedy that was Dunkirk. It was decided the Allied planes needed better cover to help make the upcoming D-Day Landings successful, so holes were bored through the floor on each level. Various smoke bombs were set off in the sandpit on the ground floor to allow the smoke level from each kind of smoke bomb to be measured and tweak its constitution accordingly. This knowledge would then allow the planes to fly low enough to deploy weapons on the German front line, whilst safely shielded by smoke.

One of the holes bored for smoke bomb testing inside the Great pagoda at Kew Victoria Howard)

This was a chance discovery by the research team about the pagoda’s history; one man, Jeremy Hardy, mentions in his biography that his father worked as an apprentice at Kew as a teenager – assisting on smoke bombs.

With some 253 steps to the top, and each storey getting smaller as you go up, it is a dizzying experience. This is the first time in decades that the public will be allowed to the top floors to take in the views of the Botanic Gardens and of London.

Today, Prince Charles viewed the restored Great Pagoda.

Entrance to the Great Pagoda is not included in Botanic Garden or Kew Palace admission, and pre-booking is recommended – go here. The restoration of the pagoda was supported by Sanpower Group, with the dragons being 3D printed by 3D Systems.

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