The Great Pagoda - Kew Gardens

 

The Great Pagoda was designed by Sir William Chambers, architect to King George IV, and completed in 1762 as a gift for Princess Augusta, the founder of the botanic gardens at Kew. It is a ten-storey octagon tower, standing at almost 50m and it offered one of the earliest and finest bird’s eye views of London.

 

Chambers studied oriental architecture in China, but when he designed Kew’s pagoda he ignored some of the rules. Pagodas should have an odd number of floors, traditionally seven (rather than ten), believed to represent seven steps to heaven. Yet The Great Pagoda was the most accurate reconstruction of a Chinese building in Europe at the time. It was originally flanked by a Moorish Alhambra and a Turkish Mosque, and 17 other follies from classical temples and ruins to eastern-inspired buildings that were all the rage in the great gardens of the time.

 

Historic Royal Palaces just refurbished The Great Pagoda and after months of work by a whole team of passionate historians, designers and craft-makers it is now back to its original 18th century splendour. This includes the original 80 dragons which originally adorned the roofs, each carved from wood and gilded with real gold.

I was lucky to win the tender set by Historic Royal Palaces for the creation of a mural inside the Pagoda, on the groundfloor. The brief set by HRP and Skellon studio evolved as the project developed, and the initial illustrated panels changed into a whole mural.

The approach is an immersive panoramic landscape. A fantasized view of the gardens at the time, featuring all pavilions and follies and unwrapping on the 8 walls of the building from the ground to the ceiling.

As they venture up the iconic staircase and its 253 steps, the visitors are invited to climb into an imaginary canopy discovering characters, animals, pavilions and temples between the leaves of giant trees, painted to scale on the 5m high walls.

 

The project grew over a few months from research, sketching the trees on the way to the Pagoda, portraying Sir William Chambers, King George IV and his mother Princess Augusta based on Kew Palace’s archives, drawing the two giant trees that surround the doors to scale with all their bark details, and leaves, stylizing iconic botanical species and animals present at the time in the gardens (based on curator Polly Putnam’s research) to find a style combining 18th century references and contemporary expectations.

 

Then came the time of painting with 2 phases of scaffolding starting at ceiling level and conducted simultaneously with other work done inside the building.

While some areas of the walls could allow screen printing of prepared sketches, most of the surface had to be kept in its historical state and free hand painting was the only option. Gold leaf guilded details added on each wall, are only visible catching the light when visitors are climbing up and down the spiral staircase.

 

Additionally, I was commissioned to create a print to be offered to HRH The Prince of Wales at the Opening ceremony on July 12th 2018.

Big thanks to project manager Tom Bennett and project director Craig Hatto, all the gentlemen at Bluesky, painters and scaffolding team, curator Polly Putnam, designers at Skellon Studio for this amazing adventure! And Farrow and Ball for being such a supportive sponsor.

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