The dragons return

WHEN I FIRST VISITED Kew Gardens, I was a teenager, the entrance fee was sixpence (2.5 pence), and you entered via a metal turnstile. I did not visit Kew often in those days because it was a long way from my family home in northwest London. Recently, we have been exploring the delights of Kew Gardens occasionally with our friends who live in the heart of nearby Richmond town. During our most recent visit, whilst drinking coffee outside the former Orangery, now café, I stared at the nearby red brick building, Kew Palace, and began wondering about the history of the site, where the botanical gardens now stand, before Kew Gardens were opened to the public in 1840.

Kew Palace, which is also known as the ‘Dutch House’, now within the botanical gardens, was built on the site of a 16th century house, the ‘Dairy House’, in 1631. It is one of the oldest of the buildings standing by the Thames and was built for Samuel Forterie (1567-1643), a merchant of Dutch descent. After King George II (reigned 1727-1760) came to the throne, the building was used as a residence by various members of the royal family including King George III during some of his periods of illness.

For a long time, Kew Palace was not the only royal residence in what is now Kew Gardens. Before the Dutch House, now Kew Palace, was built by Forterie, a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley (1532-1588), 1st Earl of Leicester, lived in its predecessor. His house was close to one owned by the Keeper of the Privy Seal, Sir John Puckering (1544-1596), which Elizabeth visited both in 1594 and 1595.

Kew Palace was opposite a much larger building, Kew House, also known as the ‘White House’. Originally built in the Tudor era, it was first owned by Richard Bennet, son of the Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Bennet (1543-1627).  Richard’s daughter and heir, Dorothy, married Sir Henry Capel (1638-1696) and they lived in Kew House. After Dorothy was widowed, she continued living at Kew House until her death in 1721. The next owner of the house was the astronomer and politician Samuel Molyneux (1689-1728), who married a grandniece of Lord Capel.

Two years after Molyneux died, Frederick (1707-1751), Prince of Wales, father of King George III, leased Kew House from the Capel family. He and his wife, Princess Augusta (1719-1772) lived at Kew House, and employed the great designer William Kent (1685-1748) to decorate the house and to lay out the grounds. After Frederick died, Augusta began the creation of the ‘Exotic Garden’, the forerunner of the present Kew Gardens. The architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796) was put in charge of the works. In addition to the well-known pagoda (erected 1761-62) and still in existence, he oversaw the building of at least twenty structures in the garden. Many of these have been demolished, but amongst those still standing are The Orangery (1757-61), The Ruined Arch (1759), The Temple of Bellona (1760), and The Temple of Aeolus (1763).

After Augusta died, King George III (reigned 1760-1820) used Kew House and then bought its freehold in 1799. The King enjoyed improving the grounds of the property and ploughed up some of the neighbouring Richmond Deer Park to create an enlarged garden. Some of the work was entrusted to the garden designer ‘Capability’ Brown. The King received visits from the botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who brought him seeds and plants for his gardens.  By 1802, Kew House was falling to pieces, and was demolished in preparation for a new palace, which was never built.  A sundial in Kew Gardens marks the site of the house. On a map drawn by John Roque in 1754, the former Kew House is labelled ‘The Princess of Wales House at Kew’ and the Dutch House (Kew Palace) is labelled ‘His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales House at Kew’. The map also includes drawings of three follies: ‘The Hermitage’, ‘Dairy House’, and ‘Merlin’s Cave’.

When George III was in residence at Kew House, he led an unsophisticated existence as described by Madame D’Arblay (aka Frances [‘Fanny’] Burney; 1752-1840). She wrote in Volume 3 of her published diary that the King lived there in:

“… a very easy, unreserved way, running about from one end of the house to the other without precaution or care … There is no form or ceremony here of any sort …They live as the simplest country gentlefolks. The King has not even an equerry with him; nor the Queen any lady to attend her when she goes her airings.”

This suggests to me that the King was careless about how he dressed (if at all) at his country retreat.

Kew Palace (the Dutch House) was separated from Kew House by a public road. Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), George III’s wife, took over its lease and then bought its freehold in 1781, and eventually died there. As mentioned already, her husband spent time at Kew Palace during his periods of illness.

In 1840, the botanical gardens, the ancestor of what we now enjoy, were opened to the public. Had it not been for the enthusiasms of the area’s earlier owners, some of whom I have described above, the location of this establishment might have been at another site. The main attractions of Kew Gardens today are the plants and some of the magnificent houses built for them during this century and the two preceding it. However, it is of interest to see Kew Palace and the few remaining garden follies created by Sir William Chambers several decades before the foundation of the present botanical gardens.

The Pagoda, which is tall enough to be seen from outside the confines of Kew Gardens is an attractive feature of the place. Writing in 1876 in his guidebook, James Thorne remarked that:

“… It is in 10 storeys, each storey diminishing a foot in diameter and height, and each having a balcony and projecting roof. Originally a Chinese dragon crawled over every angle of each roof, but these have all taken flight.”

The Pagoda remained without dragons until 2018, when its restoration was completed. It was then that these creatures, looking extremely well groomed, returned to their original perches.

Rule Britannia!

HAPPY CHRISTMAS !

NOW THAT THE GRAND FINALE of Brexit is nail-bitingly close, maybe our thoughts will turn to patriotism as it is hoped by many, but certainly not all, that Britannia will once again rule the waves, or, at least, the fish that surround our ‘sceptred isle’. Some hope, if you ask me!

James Thomson

Yesterday, the 16th of December 2020, we joined our friends on a walk from their home in Richmond to Kew Gardens. On the way, we walked along a quiet back street, Kew Foot Road, and passed a former, now disused, hospital, ‘The Royal Hospital’, which opened in 1868 (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/royalrichmond.html)  and closed recently. In its last reincarnation, it served as a psychiatric day hospital and a mental health resource centre. A plaque on one of its buildings facing Kew Foot Road commemorates that James Thomson (1700-1748) lived and died here. Observant readers will note that his residence in this location antedates the establishment of the former hospital. The hospital was opened as ‘The Richmond Infirmary’ in the pre-existing Rosedale House on Kew Foot Road. According to James Thorne in “Handbook to the Environs of London” published in 1876, this was the building in which Thomson lived.

Thorne wrote of Rosedale House:

“The present house is a large brick house of three floors, – a centre with a small portico reached by a flight of steps, and two irregular wings. The house Thomson occupied was a mere cottage of two rooms on the ground floor, which now, united by an arch, form a sort of entrance hall… It has since suffered many changes, and is by now (1876) the Richmond Infirmary. The garden has suffered as much as the house. Thomson was fond of his garden, added largely to it, and spent as much time in improving it as his indolent temperament allowed.”

Thomson’s cottage became incorporated into the building that served as the first part of what was to become the Royal Hospital.

One room was where Thomson died on the 22nd of August 1748. The other room was where he wrote  his last published poem, “The Castle of Indolence” (text available at : http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?textsid=34286)  during the last year of his life. This poem, written in Spencerian stanzas, had a great influence on the poetry written by Byron, William Wordsworth, and John Keats.  This kind of stanza, employed by Edmund Spencer (1552-1599) in his poem  “Faerie Queen”, consists of nine lines, eight of which are iambic pentameters and the remaining an iambic hexameter, with the ABABBCBCC rhyming scheme (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spenserian_stanza).

Thomson was, as you might begin to realise, a poet. Born in Scotland, and educated at The College Edinburgh, he was planning to become a Presbyterian cleric. At Edinburgh, he joined the Grotesque Club, a literary group. He made friends with a fellow member, the Scottish poet and dramatist David Mallett (c1705-1765) and followed him to London in early 1725.  Thomson had a busy life in London, tutoring, teaching in a school, and writing.

In 1740, Thomson collaborated with Mallett on the masque “Alfred”, which was first performed that year at Cliveden, the country home of Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), father of King George III. Five years later, the British composer Thomas Arne (1710-1778) modified their work to create an oratorio and then a few years later an opera. The finale of this work by Arne uses Thomson’s words in the now well-known patriotic song “Rule Britannia”.

Thomson wrote the words to “Rule Britannia” whilst living at Rosedale in Kew Foot Road. He moved to the area from his room above the Lancaster Coffee House at Lancaster Court in London’s Strand in 1836, but not immediately to Rosedale. It was in 1839 that he moved along the road to Rosedale (www.richmond.gov.uk/james_thomson).

In August 1748, Thomson took a boat trip from Hammersmith to Kew. During that excursion, he caught a chill. The great Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) describes Thomson’s this excursion in his “Lives of the English Poets” as follows (http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/BiographyRecord.php?action=GET&bioid=33843):

“The last piece that he lived to publish was The Castle of Indolence, which was many years under his hand, but was at last finished with great accuracy. The first canto opens a scene of lazy luxury, that fills the imagination.

He was now at ease, but was not long to enjoy it; for, by taking cold on the water between London and Kew, he caught a disorder, which, with some careless exasperation, ended in a fever that put an end to his life.”

Thomson was buried in St Mary Magdalene, Richmond, near the font.

I had no idea when we set out for our walk that I would walk past the former home of the creator of the patriotic song, “Rule Britannia” on our way to Kew Gardens, which we entered via the Lion Gate and enjoyed greatly. Each time I visit these fine botanical gardens, my enjoyment of this place increases.

Glass in the garden

 

Once again, London’s Kew Gardens is hosting an exhibition of glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly (born 1941). The amazingly crafted glass artworks of often quite complex design have been placed both in the open-air and inside some of Kew’s lovely old glass-houses. 

The curvy tubes with pointed ends shown in my photograph have been tastefully planted in a grassy field dotted with tulips. In the Temperate House, a large glass mobile has been suspended from the ceiling and smaller objects mingle with the plants. Wherever you look, you will find glass artefacts in  intimate contact with the plants growing around them. In the Water-Lily House, large glass sulptures evoking the flowers of water-lillies mingle with the real plants whose fronds float on the water.

As time passes and the plants grow more, some of Chihuly’s colourful glass objects will become harder to find.  The plant-like forms of many of the artworks mix with the plants to provide in some cases a stark contrast or in others they almost blend with the plants around them.

It is well worth visiting Kew whilst these sculptures are on display. However much I like the glass artworks, the stars of the show are for me the plants themselves (rather than the sculptures). This highlights how difficult it is for man to compete with nature on the aesthetic playing field.

 

The Chihuly works are on display at Kew Gardens until the 27th October 2019