The Kew Gardens Chinese Pagoda

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

January 31st, 2011

As a boy, I spent a lot of time in London, my Father worked for the BBC, so the necessity of being close to central London and BBC House was paramount. One of the joys was spending weekends bicycling to Kew. These are Royal Gardens, famous for their botanical science and research and for housing the worlds largest greenhouses. The importance of the botanical gardens cannot in fact be underestimated – a Victorian ideal, some of the specimens brought back by Charles Darwin and Edgar Wallace on their respective adventures are still alive and well and growing in the various hothouses at Kew. It’s a remarkable testament to these early botanists and naturalists that their specimens survive and are still studied here.

However it was the Pagoda that always enthralled me. Years before I ever went to China (I’ve now lived in the country for over twenty years), the Pagoda seemed like an alien transplant from an almost imaginary Orient. The mysteries of Cathay stood there, almost timeless, in front of me, ever since I can remember. Whenever I am back to London, I always pay it a visit.

The Pagoda itself 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 colorful; 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 subsequently 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 away.

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 behavior in flight. Since then, there have been several restorations, mainly to the roofs, but the original colors and the dragons have not been replaced, though the question of replica dragons was discussed in 1979.

Kew’s Pagoda is a fine example of its type, although far removed from Chambers’ original intention due to the loss of its more colorful 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. Nowadays, being more familiar with Chinese pagodas in China, it seems somewhat odd, but for a boy who would later have a quarter century career in China, the Kew Pagoda remains an inspiration.