Gardens, Gardeners and the Great Pagoda

This week is my last as an Assistant Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, so I thought this blog would be a good opportunity to reflect on some of the projects that I’ve worked on at Hampton Court and Kew over the last year.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in three interesting and incredibly varied projects: the restoration of the Great Pagoda in Kew Gardens; ‘The Empress and the Gardener’ exhibition at Hampton Court Palace; and the celebration of Hampton Court’s gardens.

2016 is a big year for gardens – not only has Visit England chosen ‘The English Garden’ as its theme for the year, but enthusiasts across the country are also celebrating the 300th year since the birth of Britain’s most celebrated gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. At Hampton Court, we’ve been celebrating our gardens with a raft of new installations that we hope will help to explain and enhance the gardens in various ways. It’s been great to see some of the installations that I’ve helped to create arrive over the past few weeks. Our new Auricula Theatre – a historically-inspired stage for displaying flowers out of doors – has certainly been a hit. So has the Gardener’s Hut, our new mobile exhibition dedicated to explaining the work of our expert garden teams. At the end of the Long Water you’ll find one of our brand new interpretation panels, more of which will be appearing in different areas of the gardens over the coming weeks. We even have new deck chairs, each illustrated with an important character associated with Hampton Court’s famous gardens.

New interpretation by the Long Water, Hampton Court Palace (© Tom Drysdale, 2016)
New interpretation by the Long Water, Hampton Court Palace (© Tom Drysdale, 2016)

The celebration of our gardens continues inside the Palace with our temporary exhibition, ‘The Empress and the Gardener’ (until 4 September). The exhibition explores the work of ‘Capability’ Brown, Chief Gardener at Hampton Court from 1764-1783, through the eyes of his draughtsman, John Spyers, in a series of watercolours that were sold to the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, in the 1780s to fuel her passion for English gardens. The drawings are on loan to us from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Collaborating with our Russian partners has been an illuminating experience, and I hope you’ll agree that we’ve put together an absorbing exhibition that is a fitting tribute to Brown in his tercentenary year.

The Empress and the Gardener’ exhibition at Hampton Court Palace (© Press Association/Historic Royal Palaces)
The Empress and the Gardener’ exhibition at Hampton Court Palace (© Press Association/Historic Royal Palaces)

As well as assisting with these projects at Hampton Court, I’ve also had the privilege of working on one of HRP’s more ambitious projects – the restoration of the Great Pagoda in Kew Gardens. The aim is to restore the 250-year-old building to its original appearance before reopening it to the public, who will be allowed to climb the 235 stairs to the top floor and experience the best views of Kew and south-west London. As a member of the project’s design team, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the building’s historical appearance and features, from the missing ornamental dragons to the eye-catching gilded terminal pole.

Alongside the restoration of the building, we will also be working with designers to develop new interpretation to help our visitors understand this fantastic royal folly. It’s no surprise that the stories associated with the Pagoda are as eclectic as the building itself. Recently I’ve been scouring the archives to find out as much as possible about the Pagoda’s use during the Second World War.  The Royal Aircraft Establishment commandeered the pagoda and cut holes in each of the floors so that they could carry out dropping experiments with model bombs. In complete contrast, I’ve also been gathering information on King George III’s flock of Spanish Merino sheep, which grazed at Kew in the 1790s and were later sold at auctions held opposite the Pagoda. The King collected these fine-wooled sheep in order to improve the quality of English fleece, but it was Australia that reaped the biggest reward when 10 of the original flock were exported to Botany Bay having been bought by Captain John Macarthur at the first auction in 1804.

A view of Kew Gardens with a flock of sheep, by William Woollett, c1765 (© Historic Royal Palaces)
A view of Kew Gardens with a flock of sheep, by William Woollett, c1765 (© Historic Royal Palaces)

Safe to say that it’s been a busy but exciting year! I will miss being part of the talented curatorial team at HRP but look forward to enjoying all of the Palaces’ offerings as a visitor in future, as I hope will you.

Tom Drysdale

Assistant Curator (Collections)

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