There was a fashion for Chinoiserie in English garden design in
the mid 18th century. Sir William Chambers was a keen advocate,
using decorative buildings and intricate pathways as a reaction
to the sweeping 'natural' lines of contemporaries such as Lancelot
The Pagoda was completed in 1762 and was not universally popular.
The great man of letters, Sir Horace Walpole, disliked it and having
seen it from Twickenham, where he lived, he complained to a friend
that, "In a fortnight you will be able to see it in Yorkshire."
The ten-storey octagonal structure is 163 ft (nearly 50 m) high
and was, at that time, the tallest reconstruction of a Chinese
building in Europe. Purists, however, argue that pagodas should
always have an odd number of floors. Kew's Pagoda tapers, with
each successive floor from the first to the topmost being 1 ft
(30 cm) less in diameter and height than the preceding one.
The original building was very colourful; the roofs being covered
with varnished iron plates, with a dragon on each corner. There
were 80 dragons in all, each carved from wood and gilded with real
gold. The iron plates were later replaced by slate and the dragons
vanished. Claims have often been made that that they were sold
to pay off some of George IV's debts, but William Aiton,
remembering them from his childhood, is known to have informed
William Hooker that their wooden structure had simply rotted
In 1843, Decimus Burton wanted to restore the Pagoda
to its former glory, but the cost then of
£4,350 was considered too high a price to pay.
Contemporaries of Chambers often wondered if such a tall building
would remain standing, though it had been "built of very hard
bricks". Its sturdy construction was proved in World War II
when it survived a close call from a stick of German bombs exploding
nearby. This was ironic, since at the time, holes had been made
in each of its floors so that British bomb designers could drop
models of their latest inventions from top to bottom to study their
behaviour in flight.
There have been several restorations, mainly to the roofs, but
the original colours and the dragons have not been replaced,
though the question of replica dragons was discussed in 1979.
The Pagoda is closed to the public, although, in 2006 it briefly opened for public access.
The BBC have installed a camera at the top of the Pagoda as a
window on the weather. It has captured some of the extremes that
have been experienced so far in 2007.
of the 2007 BBC timelapse footage...
Chambers' Chinese period
Chambers was a significant contributor to the architecture of Kew.
He is best known for his more restrained Palladian buildings such
as Somerset House, but Kew allowed him to indulge in more fantastical
architecture. The Mosque, Alhambra, Palladian Bridge and other decorative
buildings have disappeared, and the Pagoda is the only remaining
building from his 'Chinese period'. It is, of course, also a vital
component of Nesfield's grand vistas.
Kew's Pagoda is a fine example of its type, although far removed
from Chambers' original intention due to the loss of its
more colourful and extravagant roofing and decorative elements.
Nevertheless, the Pagoda is the building most easily seen from
outside the walls. If Kew has an architectural icon, apart from
the Palm House, the Pagoda is it.
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