A History of Nature, Art and Architecture…
Written by Charlotte Walsh
Spring has sprung, and where better to see the glorious floral evidence than the London institution that is Kew Gardens? The equivalent of a living botanical museum, Kew Gardens is a veritable cornucopia of horticultural intrigues, steeped in history.
Kew Palace was first built in 1631 and remains as the smallest British royal palace. The grounds became known as the exotic garden at Kew Park in 1759, but with Kew Gardens itself founded in 1840, it has expanded ever since.
Although there’s a long history of Royal involvement – perhaps most notably the Dowager Princess of Wales, Augusta for whom the Great Pagoda was built in 1762 – Kew Gardens also has a rich cultural legacy encompassing art, architecture, botany, and even a little politics!
Botany is truly the name of Kew Gardens’ game; it is home to one of the largest herbariums in the world (that’s a collection of preserved plant specimens) and a living collection of over 30,000 different kinds of plants. This magnificent plantation is arranged with care and cultivation to create a sublime garden of all gardens. From 250-year-old trees to saplings, there’s more than a little to see in the way of lush greenery. Lawns of daffodils wave at the feet of the ‘Queen’s Beasts’ statues, with 10 animals bearing shields that guard the perimeter of the Palm House. This breathtaking Victorian building is home to tropical palms and features a fabulous, very instagram-able viewing platform of palm fronds grazing the curved glass roof.
Kew is known for all things that grow, but it also has a long history with botanical art, and is home to two galleries and a museum. Established in 1857, Museum No.1 displays curiosities that illustrate the human race’s utter dependence on plants, including tools, ornaments, clothing, medicines and food.
The Marianne North Gallery has an unusual story. It was built in the 1880’s to house the paintings of Marianne North who painted the native flora. Marianne travelled alone across North and South America, Africa and Asia, but at the time, solo travelling was completely unheard of for a woman. The artist herself left the paintings to Kew, and to this day it’s the only permanent exhibition in Britain dedicated to one woman.
The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanic Art holds yet more artistic observations of botanical wonder. Named after Dr. Shirley Sherwood, who was described by the BBC as “the driving force behind a revival of interest in botanical art” and whose collection it preserves, this gallery is also the first in the world solely dedicated to botanical art.
The Hive is the latest addition to Kew’s artistic life: an immersive, multi-sensory installation designed to illustrate the life of bees. Aluminium and LEDs create a stark contrast against the greenery, and visitors can interact with the structure. There’s a hollow inside as well as the interesting experience of putting an ice-lolly stick in your mouth and pressing it into a metal slot to hear the sound of bees in their hive!
Not only a botanist’s delight, Kew houses ornamental buildings galore to delight any architectural enthusiast. From ancient Far-Eastern ornamental buildings and wrought-iron glass marvels, to minimalist marriages of granite and bronze, there’s something for everyone.
Kew Palace itself is a classic red-brick Dutch House, a Grade I listed building. Although a Royal palace, it is maintained entirely by independent charity Historical Royal Palaces, without Government or Royal funding.
The Great Pagoda sits in the southeast corner of the gardens, but with its towering height, can be seen from all over. It was built as an imitation of Chinese pagodas and echoes this ornate style. It is closed at the moment, but later this year visitors should once again be able to climb to the top and enjoy the view of the rolling estate. The Eastern influence is echoed in the four-fifths scale replica of the gateway to Nishi-Honganji temple in Kyoto (“The Japanese Gateway”) and the Minka House, a Japanese wooden house originally constructed around 1900 in Okazaki, and painstakingly rebuilt at Kew in 2001.
Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, on the other hand is the epitome of quaint English style complete with thatched roof, wooden outer beams and ageing brickwork.
On a more modern note, the Sackler Crossing Bridge across the lake is a minimalist sweeping curve of bronze and granite that transfigures in a wonderful trompe l’oeil from solid wall to bronze pillars along the sides.
The plants are beautiful, but Kew Gardens has so many other alluring facets, including some smashing pubs closeby to slake your thirst after a day of walking in this southwest wonderland.The Tap on the Line is a perfect pit-stop on the way home. Located right next to Kew Gardens station, it has a good selection of beers served in a high-ceilinged, grand space that used to be part of the station. Visitors will also be able to discover this pub’s ornate iron and glass conservatory.
The Botanist on the corner of Kew Green may not have the same grandeur, but for the beer connoisseur will be preferable as they really do have a beverage selection worth boasting about!