17 April 2018

Behind the dragons

A master carver, 3D printers, a Buddhist blessing and a wind tunnel. Craig Hatto, Project Director for the Great Pagoda tells us how his team brought 80 dragons back to life.

By Meryl Westlake and Craig Hatto

The great pagoda dragons

Recreating dragons

At 50m high the Great Pagoda once gave the finest bird’s eye of London’s burgeoning cityscape.

The original 80 gold-gilded dragons that adorned the 10 levels were removed in 1784 and have never been seen since.

Over the decades, many have tried and failed to recreate the lost 80 dragons at Kew… until today.

As part of the intensive restoration process, a core team of curators, architects and artisans have been recreating these splendid dragons. And you can see them this summer.

The beginnings 

We started with curatorial research, using a painting and etchings by William Marlow and original drawings by the architect Sir William Chambers. 

The dragons in Marlow’s painting were the closest depiction to an eyewitness impression of the Pagoda from 1763.  So, we opted to develop these dragons, with their wings drawn back. 

For the lower level, we honoured William Chambers original design with impressive wings-up versions. 

These dragons are more animated and flamboyant than their higher counterparts, fiercely guarding the Great Pagoda’s entrance. 

Our artist sketched the dragons and scaled them up. They hung the sketch out of the window of the Pagoda to test the size and silhouette of the dragon against the building. 

When we settled on the dragon’s profile, the artist created a quarter scale clay maquette, which we digitally hand-scanned and 3D printed so that the Master Carver could begin work forming the final dragon in timber. 

This dragon is called a “carve master”.  The final dragon was also digitally scanned – which led to us finding the right material. 

Size really doesn’t matter 

The 80 dragons reduce in size as they ascend the 10 floors of the building. Starting at 2.3m from nose to tail they shrink down to just under 1m in length at the tenth level. 

Traditional carving methods for all dragons would have been too heavy; around two tonnes per level! 

So only eight of the first-floor dragons could be produced traditionally and hand-painted. The 72 on the remaining nine floors were 3D printed using fabrication technique known as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)- like our model. 

Most of our dragons are now made with a robust polyimide material, 2mm-4mm thick and only weighing a few kilos. 

We tested a prototype dragon against forces that it could encounter whilst on the Pagoda. We used the old BAE wind tunnel to see how the dragon performed in wind. 

Turns out that the dragons are a lazy. They don’t particularly want to fly off, in fact they push down when hit by winds. These dragons are staying put. 

Paint your dragon 

This project has been a mix of technology and tradition. 

We did use cutting edge, 3D printing methods but it has traditional carving is at the core. 

The inspiration for decorating our dragons was based on the 1795 poem “The Botanic Garden” by Erasmus Burton. An extract describes their colour as ‘golden purple, cobaltic blues and metallic hues’. 

We had to relearn how architectural paints were made in the 1700s and find specialist paint recipes. 

Golden purple was achieved by mixing cochineal with a touch of Prussian blue and painted directly onto gold leaf. Cobalt was not then invented - but when Prussian blue is applied to palladium it turns into a brilliant cobalt metallic hue. 

A Chinese blessing 

There’s a lot of superstition and symbolism in Chinese architecture. 

Pagoda’s should have an odd number of floors, but this one has 10 and that’s unlucky in Chinese tradition. 

Our Chinese sponsors invited the Master monk of Nanking to come and bless the building. 

It was a spectacular ceremony with two monks circling the Pagoda and chanting and bestowing luck on the building. In return we gifted them an early prototype of a dragon. 

Design a dragon 

We launched a competition to celebrate Blue Peters 60th Birthday and invited the children of Britain to design a dragon. 

Applicants had to give it a name and a superpower. Cressida Cowell, the author and illustrator of “How to Train Your Dragon”, judged the competition.  

The response was outstanding with over 9,500 entrants. 

The winner was Florence, 11.  Her design called Fargesia is an intricate, beautiful dragon with healing powers based on the medicinal properties of plants. Florence was invited to come to Pinewood studios to work with the best modellers in cinema to recreate the dragon under her direction. 

Fargesia, with it’s blue bamboo wings and flowery horns, will have a home on The Great Pagoda for the 2018 season.  

The dragons return 

The Great Pagoda itself was a highly experimental building, in a garden that has always been at the cutting edge of experimentation.   

This building has stood naked and neglected for 234 years; a King without his crown, a Queen without her jewels. 

Returning the lost dragons to this treasured royal building has been a truly breath-taking experience thanks to so many dedicated people. 

And now, the dragons can take their rightful place proudly part of the London skyline for all to enjoy.