Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Great Pagoda at Kew: Colour and Technical Innovation in Chinoiserie Architecture

  • Lee Prosser


The Great Pagoda in Kew Gardens is the most important surviving chinoiserie building in Europe. Restoration of the building in 2017–18 was attended by extensive documentary and forensic research, which revealed two markedly different eighteenth-century schemes of decoration undertaken by the architect William Chambers in 1761 and 1784. Both schemes were characterised by the use of innovative and experimental building materials and the application of a varied colour palette which can be shown to have close affinities with temporary, ephemeral buildings. With so few surviving contemporary examples for reference, colour and building materials appear as important characteristics of chinoiserie architecture. The discoveries at Kew demonstrate that these elements were fundamental to the style, which was never constrained by any fixed set of rules. Chambers drew on no single source for the building, but instead imaginatively adapted the Chinese style in a structure of great virtuosity.



Hide All


1 Two good examples are the pagoda at Oranienbaum-Wortlitz in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, built by G.Ch. Hesekiel for Leopold III, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, between 1795 and 1797 (extant), and the pagoda with a Chinese orangery at Laeken (then known as Schonenberg), constructed in 1782–84 by Charles de Wailly under Louis Montoyer as a summer residence for the governors of the Habsburg Netherlands.

2 Sloboda, Stacey, Chinoiserie: Commerce and Critical Ornament in Eighteenth Century Britain (Manchester, 2014), p. 45.

3 Jacobson, Dawn, Chinoiserie (London, 1993), preface.

4 Sloboda, Chinoiserie, p. 6.

5 Conner's, Patrick Oriental Architecture in the West (London, 1979) remains the most comprehensive text on buildings rather than wider decorative arts.

6 Chambers, William, Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils (London, 1757).

7 Murray, John Fisher, Environs of London, Western Division (London, 1842). The Pagoda is represented in plates 22 (plan), 23, 24 and 25. It is also depicted in plates 38 and 43, the latter after a watercolour by William Marlow.

8 Chambers, William, Plans, Elevations, Sections and Prospective Views of the Garden Buildings at Kew in Surrey, the Seat of Her Royal Highness the Dowager Princess of Wales (London, 1763), pp. 56.

9 Examples of minor works include repairs to the steps by William Jelfe in 1769 (Windsor, Royal Archives, 55597) and by George Warren to the staircase in May 1770 (William Chambers's letter books, London, British Library [hereafter BL], Add MS 41133, ff. 12–13). Various plans and drawings also exist in the Kew Herbarium Library. The main documentation is contained in the UK National Archives at Kew [hereafter TNA], Work 16/590. In the 1840s, Burton quoted £3500 for the refurbishment but advocated the painting of the brickwork and the addition of bells and chains to newly curved roofs. There is no evidence this was ever carried out.

10 TNA, Work 16/590. Henry Primrose was secretary to the Office of Works from 1887 to 1895.

11 Catherine Hassall, ‘The Pagoda, Kew Gardens’, unpublished report B138, June 2013. Also see ‘Kew Pagoda Roof Paint’, unpublished report B392, November 2014. Hard copies are held in the curatorial archive at Hampton Court Palace.

12 Kühn, H., ‘Verdigris and Copper Resinate’, in Artists’ Pigments: A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics, Volume 2, ed. Roy, A. (Oxford, 1993), pp. 131–58. For a summary of copper verdigris used on historic oil paintings, see Renate Woudhuysen-Keller, ‘Aspects of Painting Technique in the Use of Verdigris and Copper Resinate’, in Historical Painting Techniques, Materials, and Studio Practice (preprints of the symposium held at the University of Leiden, 26–29 June 1995), ed. Arie Wallert, Erma Hermens and Marja Peek (Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, CA, 1995), pp. 65–69.

13 Salmon, William, Palladio Londiniensis (London, 1734), p. 62.

14 Dossie, Robert, Memoirs of Agriculture and other Oeconomical Arts (London, 1768), pp. 23, 167. See also ‘The Premiums’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 60, series VI, no. 3087 (19 January 1912), pp. 235–45.

15 This work has been carried out by Pedro da Costa Felgueiras of Lacquer Studios, London, who was a consultant to the Pagoda project and with whom HRP is collaborating on continuing testing of the material. See ‘The Development of Copper Verdigris in the Eighteenth Century’ (forthcoming report for the Traditional Paint Forum).

16 Windsor, Royal Archives, 55507.

17 Gloag, John and Bridgwater, D.L., History of Cast Iron in Architecture (London, 1948), p. 44. The authors note that the ‘seventy-year period from 1750 to 1820 is crowded with the names of adventurous, innovating, mechanical engineers, civil engineers and architects who appreciated the possibilities of the new material’ (p. 53). The Carron iron company, for example, was founded in Falkirk in 1760.

18 Massey, Roger, ‘Nicholas Crisp at Bovey Tracey’, Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle, 18.1 (2002), pp. 96113.

19 Toppin, Aubrey J., ‘Nicholas Crisp, Jeweller and Potter’, Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle, 1.1 (1933), pp. 3843.

20 From Cecil, Richard, ed., Memoirs of John Bacon, Esq, R.A., with reflections drawn from a review of his Moral and Religious Character (London, 1801), p. 3. See also Bradshaw, Peter, Bow Porcelain Figures circa 1748–1774 (London, 1992), p. 31, and Toppin, ‘Nicholas Crisp’, p. 38.

21 Monthly Magazine or Monthly Chronologer, 1754, p. 437. Cited in Watney, Bernard M., ‘The Vauxhall China Works, 1751–1764’, Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle, 13.3 (1989), pp. 212–25 (p. 214).

22 Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland [hereafter NLS], Erskine Murray archive, MS5153. Zaffre is a form of raw cobalt oxide.

23 Letter from Nicholas Crisp to Lord Alva, NLS, Erskine Murray archive, MS5098, f. 136.

24 Letter from Crisp to Lord Alva, 11 May 1762, NLS, Erskine Murray archive, MS5098, f. 160. Crisp ultimately went bankrupt in 1764 and transferred his venture to Bovey Tracey in Devon, where he procured his soap-clays, but this too failed.

25 Harris, John, ‘Sir William Chambers and Kew Gardens’, in his Sir William Chambers: Architect to George III (London, 1997), pp. 5567. Harris notes his source (p. 212) as the travel diary of Count Charles Paul Ernest of Bentheim-Steinfurt (1729–80), information he derived from Dr Bernard Korzus. The diary, in the form of a bound volume, reflects a journey of 1763 and remains in the private possession of the current Prince Bentheim-Steinfurt. On re-examination, the original manuscript was found not to mention colour but only: ‘The Chinese tower, 300 English feet high of the very best kind of bricks ever baked in England. The drawing and remarks stand, that in my opinion this piece you can't find in all of Europe’ (f. 14). I am grateful to Dr Gunnar Teske of the Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL) for obtaining an image of the original pages and to Silke Kiesant of the Stiftung Preussicher Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg for transcribing it.

26 Public Advertiser, 16 April 1772.

27 Small-scale repairs are recorded in the Works accounts: in June 1779, Thomas Hardwick, mason, repaired the Portland plinth and some brickwork; James Arrow, joiner, repaired linings, and Rebeccah Hillman, the glazier, cleaned and mended windows (TNA, Work 5/67).

28 TNA, LC1/39, 1 August 1783. Also see the Office of Works Minute Books, 1 August 1783: ‘sent a letter to the Lord Chamberlain relative to the repairing of the pagoda at Kew — £421.6s.6d’, TNA, Work 4/16.

29 These conclusions can be extrapolated from the results of a paint analysis and tree-ring dating, which suggest that much of the timber in the 1780s phase can be traced to south western Sweden. The earlier phasing has not been matched to any known sequences and therefore is impossible to locate. Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory, ‘The Dendrochronological Investigation of Timbers from the Roofs and Floors of the Pagoda, Kew’, unpublished report 2017/50. Hard copy held in the curatorial archive, Hampton Court Palace.

30 Office of Works Minute Books, 2 July 1784, TNA, Work 4/16.

31 TNA, Work 5/73, for all the bills associated with the refurbishment. Unpaginated but included as ‘Pagoda Extra’ for Michaelmas Quarter, 1784.

32 The use of these colours in combination is attested by William Evans's submission to the Works account bill of 1784, which specifies, among other items, ‘101 yards in Verdigris green’, ‘primary and second colouring black laths under the eaves’ and ‘stiff white lead’.

33 As the paint described in the bill as ‘copper verdigris’ has proved not to be true verdigris, the term is likely to describe its appearance, rather than the type of material used. The discrepancy provides a lesson that documentary descriptions of colour can be unreliable.

34 Painted copper appears on the King's Observatory at Richmond, designed by Chambers and constructed in 1769 for the second Transit of Venus. At the Brighton Pavilion, the Music Room and Banqueting Room were covered in copper c. 1815.

35 Jury is mentioned working with Benjamin Giese at the Chinese House in Sanssouci: Beschreibung der königlichen Residenzstädte Berlin und Potsdam, 2 vols (Berlin, 1779), II, p. 1021.

36 Huth, Hans, ‘Chambers and Potsdam’, in Essays in the History of Architecture Presented to Rudolf Wittkower, ed. Fraser, Douglas, Hibbard, Howard and Lewine, Milton J. (London, 1967), pp. 214–16.

37 A Frederick Jury, merchant, lived in London in the later eighteenth century. His will, proved in 1807, specifies that he was from Potsdam (TNA, PROB 11/1466/216).

38 A coloured Chambers drawing of the Pagoda at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA, SC54/1), which appears to show colours such as blue and yellow on the balconies, cannot be corroborated by any of the paint sequences from the building, and is now believed to reflect a chemical reaction to a later restoration of the drawing: Bristow, Ian C., Architectural Colour in British Interiors 1615–1840 (London, 1996), p. ix. See also Gage, John, Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (London, 1993).

39 Bristow, Architectural Colour in British Interiors.

40 TNA, Work 5/102.

41 de Bruijn, Emile, ‘Found in Translation: The Chinese House at Stowe’, Apollo, 165.544 (2007), pp. 5259.

42 Morris, Roger, The Architectural Remembrancer, Being a Collection of New and Useful Designs of Ornamental Buildings and Decorations for Parks, Gardens, Woods, &c (London, 1751), postscript, p. xiv.

43 See Hogarth, William, Analysis of Beauty (London, 1753), and Dossie, Robert, The Handmaid to the Arts (London, 1763).

44 William Chambers's letter books, letter dated 23 November 1772 from Amesbury (Wilts), BL, Add MS 41134, ff. 13r–14r.

45 A contemporary print (Royal Museums Greenwich, PU6488) notes that it was 40 ft long, displacing 50 tons, and had a grand room of 20 ft by 14 ft.

46 Passages from the Diaries of Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys of Hardwick House, Oxon: AD 1756–1808, ed. Emily J. Climenson (London, 1899), p. 114.

47 ‘To Temple of Confucius, fitting, sewing and nailing on canvas to roof’, June 1778 (TNA, Work 5/66).

48 The Chinese Pavilion. Boughton House, Northamptonshire, ed. Rosemary Bowden-Smith (London, 1988). See also Johan Termans, Peter Meehan and Timothy Hayes, ‘The Conservation of an Eighteenth-Century Chinese Pavilion’, in Gilding and Surface Decoration (papers given at a conference held by the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works of Art, 16 October 1991), pp. 30–35. They concede that the external roof canvas is likely to have been renewed.

49 McDowall, Stephen, ‘Imperial Plots? Shugborough, Chinoiserie and Imperial Ideology in Eighteenth-Century British Gardens’, Culture and Social History Journal, 14.1 (2017), pp. 1733 (p. 20). His source is a sketch by John Parnell, produced for ‘Journal of the Tour thro Wales and England, Anno 1769’, London School of Economics and Political Science Library Collection, Coll Misc.0038, vol. 1, f. 52r.

50 The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delaney: With Interesting Reminiscences of King George the Third and Queen Charlotte, ed. Augusta Hall, Baroness Llanover, 3 vols (London, 1861), III, p. 462.

51 See Pamela Lewis, ‘Paint Analysis’, in The Chinese Pavilion, ed. Bowden-Smith, pp. 40–44. This analysis was limited in its scope, but further observations of the presence of yellow ochre and bright green were made in 1990 as the pavilion was prepared for exhibition in London. See Termans, Meehan and Hayes, ‘The Conservation of an Eighteenth-Century Chinese Pavilion’, p. 32.

52 The original account survives: London, V&A Library, R.C.Q. 20, transcribed and reproduced in Christopher Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, 2 vols (London, 1978), I, p. 245.

53 Sirén, Osvald, China and Gardens of Europe of the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1950), p. 134.

54 Von Erdberg, Elenor, Chinese Influences on European Garden Structures (Cambridge, MA, 1936), p. 187.

55 George Lyttleton, First Baron Lyttleton, letter of 11 August 1759, BL, RP2377 (i), letter 2. See also Reeve, Matthew, ‘Dickie Bateman and the Gothicization of Old Windsor: Gothic Architecture and Sexuality in the Circle of Horace Walpole’, Architectural History, 56 (2013), pp. 97131.

56 Discussed in Harris, John, ‘A Pioneer in Gardening – Dickie Bateman Re-assessed’, Apollo, 138.380 (1993), pp. 227–33.

57 Walpole also helpfully estimated the cost of the building at £12,000. See Horace Walpole, ‘Journals of Visits to Country Seats, &c’, ed. Paget Toynbee, Walpole Society, 16 (1927–28), p. 24. In his treatise, Chambers notes that ‘The Towers called by the Chinese Taa, and which the Europeans call likewise pagodas, are very common in China’. He then notes that they are ‘nearly alike, being of an octagonal figure, and consisting of seven, eight, and sometimes ten stories, which grow gradually less in height and breadth all the way from the bottom to the top’ (Designs of Chinese Buildings, p. 5).

58 Bertram, Aldous, ‘Cantonese Models for the Great Pagoda at Kew’, Georgian Group Journal, 21 (2009), pp. 4757.

59 Letter from John Chambers to William Chambers, 3 July 1756, London, Royal Academy Letters, CHA/1/2.

60 See Nieuhof, Johan, An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperour of China, 2nd edn (London, 1669), and du Halde, Jean-Baptiste, Description Geographique, Historique, Chronologique, Politique et Physique de L'Empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie Chinois, etc (Paris, 1735).

61 Plate by Nieuhof. Another example is Allain Manesson Mallet, from Descripte de l'Univers (Paris, 1683).

62 ‘Sinkocien’ may be the modern city of Shijiazhuang. See the map that Nieuhof produced for the East India Company embassy that he accompanied in 1656: Reys-Kaerte Vande Ambassade der Nederlandse Oost Indise Compagnie door China aen Den Grooten Tartersen Cham (1665). The description of the roofs with their dragons does not occur in the English translation, but remains in the original Dutch: Het Gezantschap Der Neerlandtsche Oost-indische Compagnie, aan den Grooten tartarischen Cham (Amsterdam, 1665), p. 150 (‘en op de daken, die aan de hoeken Klene kopere schelletjes hadden hangen, lagen kunstighgehouwen Draken en andere Landgedrochten’).

63 A surviving pavilion with swept Chinese roofs at Blackheath has also been attributed to him, but without strong evidence. See Rhind, Neil and Cooper, Philip, Montague House and the Pagoda (London, 2012).

64 In addition to the Alhambra, John Harris has characterised the mosque as a conflation of Fischer von Erlach's Imperial Baths at Buda and the Sultan Orcana mosque at Bursa. See Harris, William Chambers and Kew Gardens, p. 65.

65 Porter, David, The Chinese Taste in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 2010), p. 27.

66 London Magazine or Gentleman's Intelligencer, 43 (August 1774), p. 360.

67 Honour, Hugh, The Vision of Cathay (London, 1961), p. 154.

The Great Pagoda at Kew: Colour and Technical Innovation in Chinoiserie Architecture

  • Lee Prosser


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed