No one knows where the dragons went. In 1762, 80 gilded dragons adorned the Kew Gardens Great Pagoda in London, but by 1784 there were none. The rumor that rings true is that the dragons were removed after rotting from the Little Ice Age that hit Europe around the time.

Whether these fiery creatures had an icy demise or not, we may never know. The folly, or ornamental building, was built as a gift for the founder of the Kew botanic gardens, Princess Augusta, the mother of King George III. The architect Sir William Chambers designed not only the pagoda, but also the Mosque and the Alhambra; neither of them exist today.

Early 20th-century postcard depicting a view of the Great Pagoda at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (Historic Royal Palaces)

The three follies were statement pieces, a mini-grand-tour capturing architecture from across the continents and rather conveniently showing them in one place: the royal park of Kew Gardens, indicating to all that the Georgian royal family was wealthy, worldly, and highly educated.

“View of the Wilderness at Kew,” 1763, by William Marlow. Watercolor. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1925. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

All three structures can be seen in William Marlow’s 1763 watercolor “The View of the Wilderness at Kew”: the Alhambra to the left, a little out of the frame; the Great Pagoda standing tall left of center; and the Mosque with its domed roof, off in the distance. The painting, commissioned by Chambers, is one of only two color images of the pagoda created at the time it was built.

The Historic Royal Palaces, the organization behind the restoration, used this watercolor to ensure the Great Pagoda was restored as close to the original design as possible and also to help design the pagoda’s new dragons.

Mr. Chambers’s Trading Trips to China

William Chambers, born in Sweden to a Scottish merchant, was well-equipped to design the pagoda; he made detailed studies of Chinese architecture on three trading trips to China in the 1740s, with the Swedish East India Company. He was the first European to make methodical studies of Chinese architecture and published these in his seminal work, “Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils.

Chambers completed his education in architecture, first in Paris and then Rome, before setting up practice in London. He became an influential figure in English architecture, and one of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, an organization approved of by his friend King George III. The Kew Gardens pagoda is one of Chambers’s most well-known structures still standing.

Sir William Chambers’s restored Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens. (Richard Lea-Hair/Historic Royal Palaces)

Chambers’s pagoda stands at a height of nearly 165 feet and was constructed at the height of chinoiserie, when everything Far Eastern was of Western interest. Taking less than a year to build, the 10-story pagoda was of such a lofty height that people at the time wondered whether it would remain upright. Each of the 10-octagonal stories tapers to the top, becoming about a foot smaller in diameter and height as the structure ascends.

This even number of floors deviated from the standard of Chinese architecture, wherein an odd number of floors is traditional. From his China travels, Chambers knew that the rules of Chinese architecture were controlled by social class and only an emperor could design adventurous or unexpected architecture, as he noted in his book. Chambers wrote that to deviate from the rules was frowned upon and even deemed politically dangerous.

Reimagining the 18th-Century Dragons

For the design and painting of the Great Pagoda’s dragons, historians had to look to literature and art from around the time of its construction. The 1795 poem “The Botanic Garden” by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s great-grandfather, gave the colors as “golden purple, cobaltic blues and metallic hues.” William Chambers’s original drawings and the previously mentioned watercolor of William Marlow’s were studied extensively to make the dragon designs.

For the final dragons, two designs were decided on: 72 dragons, created by 3D printing, would have their wings drawn back, similar to those in Marlow’s watercolor. And eight hand-carved dragons on the lowest level would honor Chambers’s original drawings, where the wings are held high, ready to defend the pagoda from any attack, real or imagined.

The upper levels of the pagoda where 72 3D-printed dragons sit with their wings folded back. (Richard Lea-Hair/Historic Royal Palaces)
One of the eight hand-carved wooden dragons carved in eight different workshops by esteemed master carvers. (Richard Lea-Hair/Historic Royal Palaces)

From Chambers’s design sketch, a quarter-scale clay maquette, or model, was made, which was then scanned and 3D printed for each of eight master carvers to re-create the dragons in wood. One of the eight replicas was sent to the London workshop of artists Robert Randall and Ashley Sands of Sands & Randall, who specialize in traditional and custom woodcarving, restoration, and gilding.

Randall shared by phone how traditionally a woodcarver would take on a commission from start to finish; this is the way he prefers to work. But the pagoda dragon they were commissioned to carve came to them as a design package. All the preparatory work, the research and ironing out of any challenges in the carving process, which they would normally handle, had been done by someone else. The 3D model came with a set of full-scale printouts, each showing a different angle of the dragon to ensure that each of the dragon’s features could be meticulously measured and copied, so that all eight dragon carvings remained nearly identical.

A kit-set dragon, with all the materials to make a dragon: a 3D-printed maquette (left), the rough dragon of 4-inch laminated strips of African cedarwood (center), and rolled up are full-scale blueprints for the dragon. (Sands & Randall)

The original dragons would have probably been made of pine, but these 21st-century dragons were carved into wood made up of multiple pieces of 4-inch-thick African cedarwood laminated together. “It’s the softest wood we’d ever carved; it was extraordinary, like carving butter,” Randall said, adding that the reason for the laminated block was so that the form wouldn’t crack inside or outside; anything larger than 4-inch pieces makes the sculpture susceptible to splitting.

To be able to work on such a large form, Randall and Sands adapted a wooden door to make a tilted workbench and bolted the heavy form into place. This allowed them to safely carve hard, to reach places such as the neck, without contorting themselves.

Ashley Sands contemplating the contours of the dragon’s neck. (Sands & Randall)

The first job was to “rough out” the dragon, transferring the design to the material. “You get the planes in first, as you can’t have just a big bit of wood and just start putting details in. You’ve got to get the actual planes of the surface of whatever it is you are carving around it, so it’s a bit like painting,” Randall said. This is done by first using a chainsaw, and then large chisels and larger tools are used to whack the wood off quickly, Randall said. This roughing-out stage took one month.

Robert Randall chisels into the dragon’s tail. (Sands & Randall)
Robert Randall chisels into the dragon’s tail. (Sands & Randall)

The next two months were spent carving out the details. This is where the tools get smaller, and more attention is paid to measuring every little detail, Randall said.

A closeup of the dragon claws and chest. (Sands & Randall)
The dragon’s neck against the printed dragon design behind. (Sands & Randall)
Closeup of the neck, head, and tongue. Notice how the neck and the tongue almost flow in line with each other. (Sands & Randall)
The fierce face of the dragon takes shape in African cedarwood. (Sands & Randall)
The head of the dragon, with a peek at the claws, in the Sands & Randall London workshop. (Sands & Randall)
The strong musculature in the dragon’s leg is captured through the skilled workmanship of master carvers Robert Randall and Ashley Sands. (Sands & Randall)
The wooden dragon takes on the form of the tiny 3D-printed maquette (left). (Sands & Randall)
A finished dragon’s wing. (Sands & Randall)
The wings now attached to the dragon. (Sands & Randall)

After three months, the over-eight-foot-tall dragon left the Sands and Randall workshop “in the wood,” as Randall puts it: woodworkers’ talk for untreated wood. The stark dragon went off, one might imagine, to meet his seven new siblings and to be dressed in the bright finery that all Chinese dragons need.

And, staying true to tradition, the paint used was made with 18th-century formulas. The dragons are decked in colors reflected in Darwin’s poem, with the wings in particular showing “metallic hues” achieved by gold leaf. The “golden purple” sheen was made by mixing a dash of Prussian blue with cochineal and painting directly onto the gold leaf.

Now, once again, 80 dragons can be seen on Chambers’s Great Pagoda, for the first time in over 200 years. One may wonder what Chambers would’ve thought of his Great Pagoda’s makeover, with its traditional paint, traditional carving, and then its 72 3D-printed dragons. That, we will never know—it’s as mysterious as the whereabouts of those 80 original wooden dragons.

The peak of Sir William Chambers’s newly restored Great Pagoda as seen between the trees at Kew Gardens. (Richard Lea-Hair/Historic Royal Palaces)