Looking East …

What’s the best known – and certainly most instantly recognizable – garden building in Britain?

I ought to think of something clever to say at this point, or perhaps provide a list to choose from but I suspect that for the general public, and probably garden historians too there really is one possible choice.  The fact that it’s just been reopened to the public for the first time in years following a massive restoration project, and the return of its 80 dragons is a good excuse to sing its praises and ask a few questions.



I can’t think of any other garden building that is so well-known and has such an immediate  wow factor  as the Pagoda at Kew which is now 256 years old.  Which poses the next obvious question: Why is there a Chinese inspired building in what was once a private garden for the royal family? What drove William Chambers, effectively the newly appointed ‘royal architect’, to suggest the construction of this extraordinary building?   The answer is quite a long one, but one which Chambers was eminently suited to provide.

Sir William Chambers
by Sir Joshua Reynolds
c1756, National Portrait Gallery

All the photos of Kew Pagoda come from various pages/videos on the Historic Royal Palaces website unless otherwise stated:

Chambers was born in 1723 in Gothenburg in Sweden where his Scottish father was a merchant. He began studying architecture in Paris in 1749, but in 1750 he moved to Rome like so many others to see and study its classical ruins for himself, and ended up staying there for 5 years.  Moving to London he secured the patronage of Lord Bute and in 1757 was appointed as architect to Princess Augusta, the widow of Frederick Prince of Wales and  architectural tutor to her son the future George III.

But crucially before doing all that  Chambers had worked with the Swedish East India Company, and visited China twice in 1743-4 and 1748-9. Like all Europeans his movements were severely restricted but he made extensive notes and sketched examples of every traditional building he could see.  These led him much later in 1757 to  publish the first book in Britain that tried to analyse Chinese architecture:  Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils  which  had a significant influence on contemporary taste.

A View of the Wilderness, with the Alhambra, the Pagoda and the Mosque.  British Library

At Kew it was decided to build a whole range of garden buildings including in addition to the normal run of classical temples, seats and arches several  exotic designs including a Mosque, an Alhambra, as well as the Pagoda which was the largest and most ambitious. They can all be seen in his 1763 compilation volume: Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Perspective Views of the Gardens and Buildings at Kew in Surry, a lavish folio volume sponsored  by George and dedicated to  his mother.

Sketch of the original dragons by Chambers
© RBG Kew

But it was the Pagoda that took pride of place. The book not only had  a lavish description but three accompanying illustrations, more than any other of the buildings included, including a fold-out centrepiece suggesting that  Chambers was rather  proud of his achievement. As he had every right to be.

Restoration begins

The octagonal tower is 163ft [almost 50m] high. When built it was, apart from church towers, probably the tallest building in the country. Each of its ten floors is some 30cm narrower  and some 30cm shorter than the one below.  It was originally brightly coloured and ornamented with 80 golden dragons. Chambers’ design shows the dragons on the middle eight storeys of the Pagoda extending their length along the roofs. The dragons on the lowest level were 1.8m in length,  but they became smaller on each successive floor reducing to just 80cm at the top.  It is also quite clear that these are western style ‘chinoiserie’ dragons rather than authentically Chinese ones.

The dragons departed in 1784. All sorts of stories did the rounds. They were really gold – or at least bronze and studded with precious stones and  were taken down to be be re-used in the Brighton Royal Pavilion, or sold to pay for the Prince Regent’s gambling debts. Unfortunately the truth is more mundane: Chambers was called upon to repair the roof of his creation in 1784 and  realised that the dragons which were actually carved from pine and painted, had rotted to such an extent it was safer to remove them, and they were simply not replaced.  None of the originals appear to have survived.

As you’re probably aware the Pagoda has recently reopened following a £5 million restoration project by Historic Royal Palaces. Chambers work stood the test of time very well and little structural repair was needed. The interior wooden staircase was in pretty good order, the original copper roof was still there hidden away and just  60 bricks of the wall had to be replaced.

Best of all the dragons have returned in multicoloured splendour.  The lowest 8 have been carved in cedar but the other 72 were printed in 4mm nylon using a 3D printer.  [To see how click here] This was a choice made for very practical reasons  according to Polly Putnam who has been working on the project: “The biggest engineering problem we had was attaching the dragons to the roofs… They didn’t worry much about health and safety in the 18th century, but the biggest of the printed ones weigh less than 10 kilos, and the wooden ones weigh a quarter tonne – to make them all in wood we’d have had to punch the original structure through and through with steel-reinforcing rods to hold them.”

There are a series of short videos on various aspects of the pagoda’s restoration on the Historic Royal Palaces website which are well worth looking at.

Of course like all the other exotic buildings at Kew the pagoda was merely a ‘shell’ architectural form. In China pagodas  have cultural and religious significance as repositories of relics or sacred texts and as places for contemplation.  They also normally only have 7 floors: one each for the 7 steps to Heaven.  At Kew the pagoda was merely an exotic looking prospect tower.  That fitted with the contemporary use of chinoiserie  as a decorative style in the west, which was based more on the imagination than any knowledge let alone understanding of the reality of Chinese culture.

Neverthless what Chambers did was to create  the most accurate reconstruction of a Chinese building in Europe at the time and in doing so added authenticity to previously imaginative architecture.

The Great Khan’s Banqueting Hall, from a 1430 manuscript of Mandeville’s Travels, British Library

So the real question I want to look at over some forthcoming posts is where this previously imaginary style came from?

To do that  we  probably need to go back a very long way to the earliest European connections to China.  What most  people don’t appreciate is that, although we don’t have documentary evidence,  from the most ancient of times China was trading and connected with the rest of the world, and neither it nor Japan were  quite as isolated as they were later to be. Certainly, as we will see in a future post, plants from China had spread into Southeast Asia, India and eventually Europe by the time of the Roman Empire.

China was visited during the mediaeval period by quite a number of western merchants and diplomats who often left travel accounts. Unfortunately many of these were  “adapted” rather liberally  in books such as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville and it was these  imaginary accounts that underlay European thoughts/ideas about China until well in the 16thc.

Things began to change after the  Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached India in 1498. This was just a few decades after the Chinese abruptly ended their own exploration of the Indian Ocean and beyond and was beginning to put up barriers to the outside world. [Check out reviews of the 2015  exhibition  Ming: 50 Years That Changed China, at the British Museum] However the Portuguese managed to secure trading concession at Macau in 1537 and this became a small crack in the surrounding great wall through which Chinese goods began to appear in western Europe.

Macao  from Meisner’s Thesaurus Philo-Politicus, Frankfurt, c.1623


Father Semedo’s History of China, 1655 English Translation

But it was not Portuguese traders who were best able to penetrate the great eastern empire but missionaries. A small number of Jesuits  were allowed to live in Beijing from 1601 onwards, the only  Europeans permitted to live anywhere in China other than Macau, largely because of their knowledge of Western science, mathematics, and astronomy. It was through their publications and global networks that  western Europe began to gain more accurate knowledge of China.

Tulip Vase, c.1694
Hampton Court, Royal Collections Trust

But in terms of chinoiserie generally it’s the book published after the Dutch embassy to Beijing in 1655 which was the most influential. That’s because  apart from its written account crucially it contains many detailed images of not just plants, landscapes, and people but for the first time,  architecture including  small pavilions and even a pagoda.  It was translated into English by 1669.



The growing quantity of Chinese goods being imported combined with the publication of such images soon had an effect, principally in decor but also in architecture. And where was  this new style  tried first?

Where else could it be but Versailles, for Louis XIV that most status-conscious monarch, whose brother Philippe D’Orleans was apparently  already a collector of Chinese porcelain.

In 1670 Louis asked the architect Louis Le Vau to build a  private pleasure pavilion at Trianon,  on the Versailles estate for himself and his mistress Madame de Montespan. The decor seems to have been heavily influenced by Nieuhof’s  image of the porcelain pavilion,  making it the first European building directly inspired by China.

The central building was the  surprisingly small royal apartment – just 7 metres x 5,7 metres (19 feet wide by 22 feet long). The other buildings are service pavilions. It looks typical French apart from its decoration.

The  facade had panels of tin-glazed earthenware tiles evocative of Asian porcelain which were specially made  in factories all around France. The use of French tiles was symbolic of France’s attempts to muscle in on Dutch control of eastern trade, and  Louis’ finance minister Colbert certainly opened a new porcelain factory at St Cloud to make Chinese-style wares. The roof, although of  lead was painted to resemble porcelain tiles  as well, and was ornamented with ‘porcelain’ vases.

Tapestry: L’Embarquement de l’impératrice, from L’Histoire de l’empereur de la Chine Series, design about 1690. Note the pagoda in the background.  Getty Museum

Inside was even more orientally inspired. There were a series of tapestries known as “The Story of the Emperor of China” commissioned by the Comte de Toulouse, a son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. They depict imagined scenes of Chinese court life, including the use of blue and white porcelain.  And of course there were oriental style mirrors, and textiles, as well as real and trompe l’oeil porcelain panels.

The gardener, Michel de Bouteux, designed gardens which were equally innovative. Louis was inordinately fond of flowers and spent a fortune on the gardens at Versailles. At the Trianon flowers were not planted in the ground but in pots which were sunk into the earth so that as soon as something was faded it could be replaced immediately. It allowed plants to be grown under cover or in hothouses and then planted out in flower out of season. Another innovation was the inclusion of a couple of movable greenhouses to shelter  the collection of orange trees during the winter, whilst even the metal flowerpots  were painted to look as if they, too, were of porcelain.

Unfortunately the weather was not kind to the exterior tile work, and when Madame de Maintenon replaced Madame de Montespan in the kings affections in 1687  and called the Trianon  “too cold”  it was  torn down and replaced by the current, much larger, Marble or Grand Trianon.

But improvements in ceramic technology allowed other European monarchs  to try later with more success. In particular there were a couple of pavilions at the Nymphenburg Palace started in 1716, for Max Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria. From the outside you wouldn’t know they had much in the way of an oriental connection, although the name of one of the them might give  it away.

Pagodenburg Interior

The Pagodenburg was built as a tea house and  pleasure retreat with its own gardens. Its an octagonal, two-story pavilion with a fairly traditional Baroque exterior   but as a contemporary account reports:”This Indian building is a place where the lords and ladies rest after the exertions of a round of mailspiel [a game akin to golf] … The lower floor houses a hall and two cabinets and the panelling has been executed in Arab and Indian styles with all manner of Chinese figures and pagodas.”

Chinoiserie was also adopted by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony who  orientalised  one  palace by replacing its Baroque pilasters with Chinese caryatids while his “Indian Pleasure Palace” at Pillnitz dating from 1720 has a chinese style roof.  But elsewhere in Europe, although chinoiserie was becoming popular as a decorative style  it isn’t really affecting architecture, not even in garden buildings. That starts in England, as we’ll see in a couple of weeks…

About The Gardens Trust

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1 Response to Looking East …

  1. tonytomeo says:

    In America, particularly California, foreign architecture is not foreign at all. It is part of our culture. Yet, for some reason, it really does seem odd to Californians to see architecture that does not conform in other cultures within other regions, such as Europe and Brittan. I do not know why that it is. We just expect it all to be more conforming there.

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