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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

A Brief History of the Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens

What is the Great Pagoda?

The Great Pagoda is a 18th-century Chinese style pagoda in Kew Gardens that’s adorned with colourful dragons, and offers excellent views of the capital.

Great Pagoda

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Great Pagoda History

This towering pagoda, completed in 1762 for Princess Augusta, represents one of London’s most impressive examples of Orientalist art. Commissioned to fashion a gift for the princess, who founded the gardens here at Kew, the designer Sir William Chambers gained inspiration on his voyages with the Swedish East India Company.

An agent of a commercial empire, Chambers’s fascination originated in his years of travelling in Asia and studying China’s architectural wonders. Chambers was educated first in Rome, during an era of ‘oriental-mania’, where the city regularly enjoyed highly fashionable festivals devoted to Chinese art and culture. These were thought to have served as the inspiration for many of Chambers’s architectural contributions to London – the idea of the temporary transformation of familiar, classic spaces into foreign, supposedly exotic landscapes.

The Great Pagoda, an East Asian tower in the midst of a classically English garden, embodies this idea.

When it was first constructed, Londoners were not at all convinced that the pagoda could even stand upright. They were utterly perturbed by the strange, otherworldly structure Chambers unveiled. However, East Asia was already becoming a profitable business in the 18th and 19th centuries, and trading of fine arts, bought cheaply in the markets of Hong Kong, was a popular pastime amongst London’s aristocrats.

The commodification of the Orientalist concept of the ‘East’ helped to invigorate and expand the appetites of western imperialism, whilst the era’s art, architecture, literature and scholarship popularised a romanticised vision of a mystic East. It was this notion that facilitated colonial conquest and trade, with China being particularly ravaged for its access to trade networks within East Asia. Later China was exploited as a market, for its vast production of tea.

16 structures were built as part of the ‘royal circuit’; the Great Pagoda was the largest and most ambitious of them. Each building aimed to represent a style encountered by architects on their colonial expeditions. The spiralling pagoda, in particular, was adorned with 80 writhing dragons. The originals have been lost, speculated to have been a victim of George IV’s gambling habit (but more likely the wood rotted over time), however the decorative dragons were restored in 2018.

Chambers designed a number of Kew Gardens’ other iconic sites, including the Orangery, the Ruined Arch, the Temple of Bellona and the Temple of Aeolus. He also contributed to the design of Somerset House, and the Gold State Coach that is still used for certain royal occasions. Another ‘Orientalist’ building, a residential property in Lewisham, known as the Blackheath Pagoda, that previously served as the summer home of the Duke of Buccleuch, is also attributed to Chambers.

Chambers’s style was not universally liked in the 18th century. Historian and politician Horace Walpole sarcastically commented that ‘we begin to perceive the Tower of Kew from Montpellier Row; in a fortnight you will see it in Yorkshire’. However, the beauty of its design and the impressive views from its peak continue to prove popular with Londoners and tourists alike.

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