Chambers, Burton and the seven o’clock club

Taking a break for lunch whilst working on a front garden in Teddington last week, I explored the nearby park, Grove Gardens. A bowling green with an immaculate greensward occupies much of the space, surrounded by a waist height evergreen hedge. What struck me, apart from Teddington Bowling Club’s pavilion buildings, which would not have looked out of place in a 1950’s Ealing Comedy, was the scale of the mature conifers around the park’s perimeter. One cedar in particular towers above its neighbours and looks to be of a venerable age. When I read the London Borough of Richmond’s interpretation panel near the park’s entrance, I discovered I was standing in what was once the garden of a large house, Teddington Grove, built in the 1760’s for wealthy business man Moses Franks and demolished in 1920.

The architect of the house is not known, but it is understood that the gardens were designed by Sir William Chambers who built Somerset House and the Kew Pagoda. The grounds at Teddington Grove included flower gardens, parterres, glades and statues. I am intrigued by the fact that at the same time that Chambers was commissioned by new monarch George III to embellish his gardens at Kew, he was also being asked to design a garden a few miles to the south.

 

The 160 foot high Pagoda was only one of the fantasy buildings designed by Chambers in a variety of exotic styles to decorate the royal gardens. Several have long since disappeared such as the Alhambra, a mosque and a Temple of the Sun. But three classical temples survive (devoted to Aeolus, Bellona and Arethusa) and the Ruined Arch is a feature of the path leading south from Victoria Gate to Lion Gate, known as Camellia Walk. The elegant Orangery is now a self service restaurant but was originally designed to accommodate a collection of citrus trees.

In the summer of 2018 Historic Royal Palaces completed its renovation of the Kew Pagoda, including the 80 fierce gilded dragons which graced its eaves. A few months earlier I had the opportunity to see the restoration project at close quarters when I joined a tour for Kew staff shortly before I left RBG Kew. We were equipped with steel-capped boots, hard hats and heavy duty gloves for the ascent of the building, climbing ladders constructed in the scaffolding with which the Pagoda had been encased for the previous couple of years. As we climbed, we glimpsed the expanse of Kew Gardens unfolding beneath us: the two vistas radiating from the Pagoda to the Palm House and the lake and everywhere Kew’s living collection of trees, a few of which were beginning to display autumnal foliage. The scaffolding extended above the apex to a platform from which we looked down into the space where the gilded finial was to be reinstalled a few months later.

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From my sometimes ‘Kew-centric’ perspective it is easy to forget that the eminent architects who designed its iconic buildings had careers which involved commissions other than for the royal gardens at Kew. I recently read that Decimus Burton (1800-1881), who designed Kew’s great glasshouses, the Palm House (1845) and the Temperate House (1860-1898), was the architect of the classical style Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall in 1824 when only 24 years of age. This discovery came about during a discussion with friends one of whom had recently been invited to dine at the club and another of whom had done so some years before. The latter recalled being shown the clock at the top of the imposing marble staircase where the Roman numeral VII appears twice: in its correct position and where one would normally expect to see VIII.

 

An internet search ensued to find an image of the clock and whilst we could not find an explanation for this orological phenomenon on the club’s website, it did refer to Decimus Burton as having been the architect of the club in which it hangs. In fact Burton’s influence on the layout and design of the West End of London extends well beyond a gentleman’s club in Pall Mall to the grand entrances to Hyde Park, the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner and the enclosure of the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. In Dublin he re-landscaped the magnificent Phoenix Park over the course of about 20 years.

 

After my stroll around the little park in Teddington last week, I returned to my more modest garden commission (about which more in a later post) delighted to have found an unexpected connection between a secluded park not far from the north bank of the Thames with a famous cousin on the south bank of the river a few miles downstream.

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