In Search Of The Lost Mosque Of Kew Gardens

In Search Of The Lost Mosque Of Kew Gardens
The Chinese Pagoda by IanVisits, Londonist Flickr Pool

Everyone who has been to Kew will have been struck by the huge 10-storey pagoda, which rises majestically from amongst the surrounding shrubbery. What visitors may not know is that during its early history the Royal Botanic Gardens had a whole host of similarly exotic follies, which have now been lost.

In the 1730s, when Kew was still known as the Royal Gardens, George II's consort Queen Caroline commissioned a series of whimsical buildings by architect William Kent, including a magical grotto and a star-studded hermitage.

Queen Caroline, wife of King George II

Merlin's Cave was 'more of a thatched and fanciful cottage' than a bone fide cave. This ersatz attraction was visited by the fashionable types of the day, who came to see the waxworks of the magic-man himself and other mythical figures. The structure was also inhabited by local poet and curator Stephen Duck and his wife Sarah Bigge, who was formally employed as a 'Necessary Woman'. The pond outside became known as 'Duck's Pond'.

Merlin's Cave

The Hermitage was a rough-and-ready stone structure that contained a ramshackle pantheon of the nation's great and good. Busts of luminaries Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and John Locke all vied for prominence. Both of these early structures performed a political purpose, by promoting the British credentials of the Hanoverian King and his German wife.

The Hermitage

Super-gardener Capability Brown remodelled Kew in the 1760s, destroying Merlin's Cave, but the Hermitage survived, only to be razed in the 1800s. Also around this time, architect William Chambers, a figure who looms large in Kew's history, started to make his mark on the gardens.

Sir William Chambers

In 1761 Chambers's still extant pagoda was erected. Although it survives, it does so in a diminished form. Its original appearance was much more exuberant than the current, relatively restrained exterior would suggest. The whole building was previously painted a garish blue and red, with gleaming roof tiles.

Frosty Morning in Kew by Rupinder Khural, Londonist Flickr Pool

Furthermore, gilded dragons adorned each prominence. The pagoda was spared the fate of the other lost follies by the Office of Works stating 'the pagoda is to be kept up'. It later narrowly avoided destruction during the Blitz and  was recently restored.

A drawing of what the pagoda's dragons originally looked like

Originally flanking the pagoda were two equally exotic buildings, influenced by Chambers's extensive foreign travels.  The Alhambra, inspired by its magnificent namesake in Granada, was a Moorish-style building completed in 1758.  Unlike the complex of suites that constitute the original, it was a relatively simple edifice, consisting of a single room covered by an intricate, multicoloured porch. In was destroyed in 1820 and is now a sunken garden.

The magnificent Alhambra, Granada once inspired a folly in Kew by Julián Rejas De Castro from Flickr under the creative commons licence

Completing the trio was the mosque, finished in 1761 and base on examples of Turkish Islamic architecture. It was replete with two minarets and contained stucco palm trees, with leaves of straw and ribbon. The fate of the mosque is not fully known, but by 1785 it was gone.  

A drawing of William Chambers's Mosque

Today, the mound the mosque stood on is occupied by the Japanese Gateway. Chokushi-Mon, as the Gateway of the Imperial Messenger is formally known, is a four-fifths replica of a temple structure in Kyoto.

The Japanese Gateway, with the pagoda visible in the background

It was created for the 1910 Japanese-British Exhibition and relocated to Kew after the end of the exhibition. It now sits surrounded by a traditional Japanese Garden, complete with calming 'zen' gravel features.

The Garden of Activity by B on Flickr, reproduced under creative commons licence

A vast array of other, frequently bizarre, temporary constructions inhabited Kew during the 18th century era of folly-mania. A gothic cathedral made of wood and white plaster, a purposely ruined arch, an Egyptian-style pyramid and numerous greco-roman temples have all failed to stand the test of time and have since been obliterated.

The Gothic Cathedral of Johann Heinrich Müntz

The diversity of the buildings that graced the gardens was captured around 1810 in a drawing made for British architect Sir John Soane, now held in the collection of his eponymous museum. This shows the various follies, both lost and surviving, against an explosion of light. A reproduction can be viewed on a board fixed to the base of the Kew pagoda.

The drawing at the base of the Kew pagoda showing the range of follies that have existed in the gardens

Last Updated 07 August 2017