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Tuesday 30 June 2020

Collection Focus – A View of the Wilderness

Kew Gardens and its iconic Pagoda is the subject of this week’s Collection Focus, as volunteer Richard looks at the history of the buildings depicted in this work from William Marlow.

William Marlow (1740 – 14 January 1813) was an English painter and etcher specialising in landscape and marine views. He was born in Southwark in London. He studied under the marine painter Samuel Scott and also studied at the St Martin’s Lane Academy. After this training, he became a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists. He gained employment painting views of country houses. He travelled in France and Italy from 1765 – 1768. On his return to London he became a Fellow of the Society of Artists in 1771 and he resided in Leicester Square in London. In 1788 he relocated to Twickenham. From 1788 – 1796 he exhibited at the Royal Academy on a regular basis. He died in Twickenham in 1813.

He painted in both oils and watercolours. He was influenced by Richard Wilson and Canaletto. His subjects were generally British country scenes, but he also completed works based on his Italian sketches, as well as views of the Thames and the bridges of London.

A View of the Wilderness, with the Alhambra, the Pagoda and the Mosque, in the Royal Gardens at Kew, William Marlow

The Work in question

This etching is based on a watercolour which Marlow completed in 1763. He contributed to an album illustrating William Chamber’s designs for buildings at Kew Gardens. This was later published as Plans, Elevations, Sections and Perspective Views of the Gardens and Buildings of Kew in Surrey, the seat of Her Royal Highness, the Princess Dowager of Wales (London 1763).

Marlow offers the viewer an idyllic scene of a royal pleasure ground populated with a trio of aristocratically attired spectators and two obviously inferior types performing menial work. It is evident that a clear social order is being alluded to here. This is a place where the natural hierarchy of Georgian Society is clearly evident.

The Pagoda

Of the three exotic buildings shown in the composition the spectator’s eye is drawn to the Pagoda. This was built for Augusta Dowager Princess of Wales between 1761 and 1762 at the cost of £12,000. It was designed by William Chambers. Chambers was born in Sweden but later took up residence in Britain. He had travelled to China as an officer of the Swedish East India Company. He was inspired to create exotic buildings at Kew which were loosely based upon the architecture he had seen in China. The taste for ‘chinoiserie’, architecture imitating the Chinese style, was less concerned with accurate reproduction and more with fanciful reimagining of the orient. Thus the Pagoda is a western interpretation of an oriental building. It disregards Chinese convention of architectural design, as well the traditionally religious aspect of such buildings, in favour of dramatic flare and the indulgence of the Georgian taste for the exotic. Reaching up fifty metres and originally adorned with eighty gold painted dragons, this structure was the tallest secular building in the country when construction was completed in 1762. It would have dominated both the gardens and the surrounding area. It was the original Georgian skyscraper.

The Mosque

Contributing to the exotic landscape created by William Chambers was the Turkish-style Mosque seen to the right of the Pagoda. This was constructed in 1761. Chambers claimed to be faithfully recreating foreign architecture but the interior was in the Western style with the ceiling painted by the artist Richard Wilson. The Mosque imitated the appearance of a great Byzantine church with Arabic script inscribed in gold letters running around the outside of the building. It followed the plan of an octagon with smaller chambers flanking it. Externally it adhered to the principles of Turkish architecture but inside Chamber’s aim was to create something ‘uncommon and at the same time pleasing’. The building only lasted sixteen years until orders where given to take it down in 1779. It was constructed from wood and plaster so it would have been unlikely to withstand the ravages of time. It seems the Mosque was intended as a transient garden folly rather than a lasting landmark.

The Alhambra

This Spanish inspired building was of a similarly fragile construction. In execution it was more comparable to a Venetian palazzo than anything actually to be found in Spain. The building incorporated a salon and a portico of coupled columns which were decorated to resemble ceramic tiles. This was topped off with a viewing pavilion and balustrade. Inside the ceiling was based on a Roman vault. The structure as a whole was a curious mixture of foreign styles which characterised the Georgian interpretation of the exotic as was fashionable at the time. This folly was also short-lived and no traces of it remain today.


The artist records what was essentially an exercise in the imagination of the architect William Chambers in the service of the Royal Family at Kew in the mid 18th century. The gardens became a royal pleasure ground where exotic follies were constructed to celebrate and imitate various architectural styles from far flung corners of the globe. The wilderness referred to in the title of the work would have been a relatively remote part of the gardens at Kew. In it we see three monuments to Georgian fantasy. The Great Pagoda was a typical example of ‘chinoiserie’ which sought to emulate and to a large extent reinterpret the architectural style of China. The Alhambra was notionally Spanish but in reality was an indulgence in fantasy mixing various motifs, designs and decorations to create a hybrid structure of no particular discernible style. The Mosque was an imitation of a Turkish religious building but its interior catered for Western artistic sensibilities. Of the three only the Great Pagoda remains. Completed in 1762, this brick tower still stands as a monument to the skill of the Georgian craftsmen who realised William Chamber’s dramatic vision.

Richard Lewis

Volunteers are integral part of the gallery – could you give some time to volunteer? You could contribute to our Collection Focus series. For this, and other opportunities, visit our Volunteering page.