Stories & Content
What’s the story?
The history of the Pagoda is rich and varied, but the stories outlined here are the ones we want you to focus on as part of your proposal.
You can choose to focus on one story, or multiple of the stories.
We want visitors to leave their visit to the Pagoda understanding more about its history and significance than they did when they arrived, but we also want them to be emotionally engaged and inspired by their visit experience.
The Pagoda experience is for all visitors, but we’re particularly interested in how you could create a social and intergenerational experience for groups of visitors, as well as for individuals.
What’s so great about the Pagoda?
The Great Pagoda was designed by one of Britain’s most important 18th Century architects, William Chambers, for George III’s Mother, Princess Augusta. It was built between 1761 and 1762 as a curiosity, and a viewing tower.
The Great Pagoda is the most important Chinoiserie-style building in Europe. It is the largest and most prominent of several such buildings created in the 18th century and it directly influenced Chinese-style buildings in other aristocratic gardens.
The building is a significant example of an 18th century garden building by William Chambers – reflecting royal patronage and epitomising the contemporary fascination with the exotic, at a time when Europe was opening itself ever further to external cultural influences. The building also reflects both experimental and whimsical aspects of architecture.
The Pagoda, because of its great height and unusual form attracted instant notoriety. As it was being built the great social commentator Horace Walpole wrote “We begin to see the Tower of Kew from Montpelier row, in a fortnight you shall see it from Yorkshire”.
George III, the sheep and the Pagoda
George III earned the nickname ‘Farmer George’ through his keen interest in farming and its improvement. One of his agricultural experiments was centred on improving the quality of his sheep’s wool by cross-breeding them with Spanish Merino sheep. Export of these animals was, at the time, banned by the Spanish authorities. However, Kew’s botanist, Joseph Banks, managed to acquire several Merinos for the King that were duly integrated into His Majesty’s flock. Subsequently sheep from the King’s flock were sold at public auctions that were held annually at the base of the Pagoda every August between 1804 and 1810 before the royal flock was dispersed in 1813.
During his first bout of illness, George III was taken on regular walks around Kew Gardens by his physicians. On one of his walks in February 1789 the King wished to climb the Pagoda. When the Pagoda was not opened for him, George threw himself on the floor and refused to get up, eventually having to be carried away by four of his attendants
Scientific development and the Pagoda
The Pagoda was an experimental building and also used as a place of scientific experimentation. In the 1850s, permission was granted for a series of meteorological experiments to be conducted within the Pagoda and a dial was affixed to the top floor by the Royal Observatory. On 15 October 1883, permission was granted for the testing of photographic equipment in the Pagoda. Most alarmingly, in March 1941 permission was granted for the Pagoda to be used as a model bomb dropping facility by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (Armament Research Department). Their tests necessitated holes of increasing sizes being cut in each floor of the Pagoda from top to bottom through which dummy bombs were dropped, landing in a box of sand at the base of the tower. After the end of the war, the holes were patched up and use of the Pagoda was returned to the Royal Botanical Gardens. Fortunately the structure escaped damage during the Second World War despite several enemy bombs landing nearby.
What a view!
Visitors have always enjoyed the Pagoda as a viewing tower, affording spectacular views over the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, and London. At 163 feet (nearly 50 metres) in height, the Pagoda offers sweeping views from its top storey. Chambers boasted that ‘the prospects open as you advance in height, and from the top you command a very extensive view on all sides, and in some directions upwards of forty miles distance, over a rich and variegated country.’ These prospects would have included the royal residences at Kew, Richmond and Windsor, as well as views of the various other buildings in Kew Gardens such as the Mosque and the Moorish Alhambra, also by Chambers. The gardens – and the surrounding landscape – have changed considerably over the past 250 years.