Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens, the greatest of all public gardens in Britain and perhaps the world, is on the Richmond Branch of the District Line Underground, and on British Rail on the North London Line.

Kew Gardens has a place on these art pages largely because of the two enormous greenhouses. The Palm House was built in 1844-8, by the engineer Richard Turner and the great architect Decimus Burton. It is a huge and beautiful iron and glass structure made of simple repeating units. Looking at this elegant structure must be about as close as we can get to seeing the Great Exhibition (Crystal Palace) building, which no longer exists. Even bigger than the Palm House is the later Temperate House, again by Decimus Burton, which was commenced in 1860 but apparently not finished until 1899. This structure is some 600 ft long and 60 ft high, and with its more blocky structure (whereas the Palm House is arched and curved) and classical-style pediment, is perhaps even more evocative of the Crystal Palace.

Decimus Burton also restored the charming round Temple of Aeolus, from a decayed original by William Chambers - it is sited on a hill next to the former Wood Museum (Museum no 1), which I think is also by Burton.

There is some sculpture at Kew which deserves mention, and a most important collection of Victorian paintings. In the Palm House are two lead figures, a little less than 4 ft high, by John Cheere (1709-87). One is a Shephard, standing with legs crossed, and with hat and rounded face rather an unlikely figure. Better is the bosomy Shepherdess in tightly tied bodice, collecting apples in a pouch. These are typical of the 18th Century garden sculpture that foreshadowed the even more popular (and better) Victorian garden sculpture of the 19th Century. Having said that, the 19th C copy of the Donatello David, also in the Temperate House, is not much of an asset. The Palm House overlooks a lake and in front of it is a row of Portland Stone heraldic beasts (the 10 Queen's Beasts), carved by James Woodford RA in 1956, and suitably large - about 6 foot high, raised on plinths. In the lake itself stands a monumental statue of an athlete struggling with a snake - it is Hercules fighting Achelous, and is by Francis Joseph Bosio (1768-1845).

In the garden of grasses near to the modern Princess of Wales greenhouse is The Sower, an important work by Hamo Thornycroft, purchased for the Gardens by the Leighton Fund. The ideal figure of a peasant farmer is shown as a heroic figure, and this is a rare chance to see Thornycroft's work in this style at full size (though various museums have maquettes). Close by, in the Herb Garden (or 'Order Beds') is a harmless bronze of a young man in modern dress with a shovel, entitled Out in the Fields - it is by Arthur G. Atkinson, and was presented in 1929 by A. T. Hare.

The Marianne North Gallery is a purpose-built gallery within the gardens to display the botanical paintings of a 19th Century artist who travelled the world. Nearly 850 of Marianne North's oil paintings are on show, in the original packed-in Victorian arrangement of 1882. The pictures are highly realist, and thus of great interest to the botanist, and as noted by a contemporary writer, 'it is more likely that future generations will have a better opportunity of appreciating the gift than is afforded at the present time, since many of the scenes depicted are slowly but surely disappearing before the ploughs and herds, the fires and the axes, of the colonist and the pioneer.' The pictures vary from detailed close-ups of fruits and leaves to panoramic views similar to those of Edward Lear, and studies of monstrous vegetative inhabitants of native villages, and reptiles and birds that inhabit the jungle.

A final note on architecture. Kew contains various important 19th Century structures apart from the large greenhouses. A relatively small one near the main gate (sadly recently stripped of its tree frogs and enormous cheeseplants and to be converted into a 'visitor reception' by the barbarians) is by Nash and was originally for Buckingham Palace. The Pagoda (by William Chambers) is a witness to the Japanese influence. The Marianne North gallery itself was designed in Greek style by James Fergusson in 1882, and various small Greek temples are dotted around the Gardens.

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