Chinese company backs restoration of London's Grand Pagoda in spirit of Sino-Britain ties

By Sun Wei in London Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/19 17:28:40

Chinoiserie Dragons return to Britain’s Kew Gardens

A dragon designed for the Great Pagoda Photo: Courtesy of Wang Zhiyong

Lost for more than 200 years, the Chinoiserie dragons that once decorated the Great Pagoda in London's Kew Gardens will return to their roosting spots after a renovation project restores the pagoda to its original glory.

Designed at the height of the 18th century craze for Chinoiserie, the Great Pagoda was famously adorned with 80 brightly-colored dragons carved from wood. These dragons were later removed when the pagoda underwent repairs some 20 years after it was built, while the pagoda itself has been closed to the public for nearly 50 years now due to disrepair.

Now, a restoration project launched during the second half of last year is working to restore the pagoda and replace the missing dragons.

While work on the pagoda is still underway, the dragons were revealed at a media event in London last week. The project was funded by the House of Fraser department store, which is part of the Nanjing-headquartered Sanpower Group.

The renovation project will see the pagoda return to its former glory complete with green and white roofs, a gilded finial and 80 wooden dragons. If everything goes as planned, the pagoda will be reopened to the public in 2018. The Kew Gardens was listed in 2003 by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage.

Xiang Xiaowei, cultural counselor at the Chinese embassy in the UK, said that he feels the Great Pagoda will be a great symbol for conveying the more than 200-year-old historic friendship between China and the UK.

Replica of Nanjing Pagoda

The Great Pagoda is believed to have been inspired by the 15th-century Porcelain Pagoda located in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province.

The Porcelain Pagoda was designed during the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424) during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Located on the south bank of the Qinhuai River, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world but was mostly destroyed in the 19th century during the Taiping Rebellion.

Rising nine stories to a height of 97 meters from an octagonal base 30 meters wide, the tower was a major icon for the city.

Visitors from the West reported on its beauty when they returned to their homelands - one of these travelers was English architect Sir William Chambers.

Chambers designed the Great Pagoda for the British royal family during the height of Europe's craze for chinoiserie after he visited China twice in 1743 and 1748. It was believed that he was influenced by prints he had seen of the pagoda in Nanjing.

Completed in 1762, the 50-meter tall 10-story pagoda was the tallest Chinese-style building in Europe.

Craig Hatto, project lead at Historic Royal Palaces, told the Global Times that the Great Pagoda offered the earliest and finest bird's eye view of London.

"King George III would use this as a prospecting tower," Hatto said. This was quite different from the role of pagodas in China, where these buildings are revered as the repository of relics or sacred writings and as places for contemplation.

Craig Hatto (right) reveals one of the dragons that will decorate the Great Pagoda in London's Kew Gardens on November 10. Photo: Courtesy of Wang Zhiyong


High-tech dragons

The Great Pagoda was originally far more colorful than it is today and was once adorned with 80 gilded hand-carved wooden dragons. The dragons were eye-catching and quite famous, but after they were removed in 1784 when repairs were made to the pagoda's roof. Historians are unsure exactly why the dragons were removed and what happened to them afterward. Some experts theorize that the original dragons were carved of pine and were removed because they had started to rot.

Craig Hatto told the Global Times that between 1761-1784 the weather in Britain was particularly bad: Volcanic eruptions in Europe had a massive impact on Britain's weather system, causing the wettest weather on record.

"Chinoiserie at that point then fell out of fashion and so the dragons were not replaced," Hatto added.

The key part of the current renovation project is to restore these 80 dragons so visitors can see what the pagoda looked like when it was first built.

However, recreating an exact copy of these dragons is no simple matter. Curators have to rely on archival resources and carry out research into the Chinoiserie style of the period in order to recreate the carvings and get the colors right.

Hatto told the Global Times that the combined weight of the original dragons on each story would have weighed around 2.5 tons, thus the impact on the building would have been phenomenal. This has created a difficult challenge for the restoration team.

"We have to find a different form of engineering. From the conservation point of view, something that won't damage the building. That's our primary goal," Hatto said.

"We opted for 3D printed dragons, which are incredibly light. Each dragon went from 45-50 kilograms down to 4.5 kilograms," Hatto said, when showing off the dragons at the event.

"They are possibly the largest 3D printing project in the world," he added.
Newspaper headline: Restoring history


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