Multicoloured Chinese dragons to return to Kew's Great Pagoda in a major restoration

By Culture24 Reporter | 02 June 2015

The famous Kew Pagoda is to get its Chinese dragons back as part of a major restoration project with Historic Royal Palaces

a photo of a the top of pagoda building
The famous Kew Pagoda - sans dragons © RBG Kew
It was one of the jewels in the crown of Georgian London: a building so unusual that a suspicious public were unconvinced it would remain standing when it was built in 1762. 

The Great Pagoda at Kew was unveiled at the height of the 18th century craze for Chinoiserie, famously adorned with 80 brightly coloured wooden dragons. 

The eye-catching dragons soon became the talk of the town. But just 20 years after they were unveiled, they disappeared. Rumours abounding at the time suggested they had been flogged off as payment for the Prince Regent’s gambling debts.

Like many tales attending the Prince Regent, the speculations were probably spurious. Thanks to a major restoration led by Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the flamboyant dragons are now set return as the building reverts to its 18th century splendour. 

Probably commissioned by Princess Augusta, and designed by architect Sir William Chambers, Londoners and tourists alike flocked to see the striking 163ft (nearly 50m) tall building, which formed part of Kew’s homage to the Grand Tour. 

a sketch of a dragon ornament peering over the edge of a pagoda roof
Sketch of the original dragons by the architect William Chambers © RBG Kew
Its seemingly golden dragons were designed to dazzle, but they disappeared in 1784 when repairs were undertaken to the building’s roof. They were never seen again.

According to the team behind the restoration project, which will see the Pagoda reopen to the public in 2017, there is still “a bit of detective work to be done” to ascertain what the original dragons looked like.

“It has been fascinating to piece together the story of the elusive dragons, missing from this remarkable building for more than two centuries,” explains Project Lead Craig Hatto, of Historic Royal Palaces.

“Using tantalising contemporary accounts and drawings, and taking inspiration from surviving 18th century dragons in houses and museums across Europe, we’ll be pulling together a team of specialist craftsmen to ensure the new dragons are as faithful to the original design as possible.”

The original dragons were made of wood and experts believe that, despite their fame, after their removal they simply rotted away.

The architect who designed Kew’s Palm House – Decimus Burton – even made an attempt to find them in 1843, but to no avail, and right up to the 1970s the mystery of the lost dragons and the question of how to replicate them was still being discussed.

Whatever the truth behind the fate of the Kew dragons, the current restoration will bring to a close a 200-year-old quest - and return one of London’s earliest and finest bird’s eye views to its original splendour.

a drawing of a pagoda with dragon emblems visible on each roof
A period postacrd with the dragons in-situ© RBG Kew
a photo of a pagoda seen from an avenue of trees
The Kew Pagoda is one of the most recogniseable landmarks of London© RBG Kew
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