RESTORATION OF AN 18TH CENTURY LANDMARK
The landscape surrounding the King’s Observatory when built in 1769 was parkland conceived and in the style of the famous landscape architect Capability Brown. The Old Deer Park, in its expanded form, was itself the product of a plan originated by King George III who, seeking to consolidate the Park into a single homogeneous unit, had acquired and demolished existing buildings at the Hamlet of West Sheen on the extreme West of the Park and where originally the great Carthusian Monastery commissioned by Henry V in 1414 stood.
The Old Deer Park provided extensive views at the time of the River Thames and strollers along the towpath on the northern perimeter of the Park would note across the water the church at Isleworth and admire the impressive building of Syon. Capability Brown appreciated the value of being able to see the surrounding landscape and made extensive use of ha-ha’s as an essential component of his "swept" style views. Ha-Ha’s were described at the time as enabling “The contiguous ground of the park without the sunk fence was to be harmonized with the lawn within; and the garden in its turn was to be set free from its prim regularity, that it might assort with the wilder country without."
King George III, ever fascinated with the science of his time, conceived of the idea of constructing an observatory within his park with a view generally to observing the heavens but in particular the passage of the Planet Venus across the face of the Sun – the sequences of transits that repeat every 245 years and which at that time would permit astrologists to calculate with greater accuracy the size of the solar system and provide an estimate of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. For the same purpose, Captain Cook was despatched to the South Seas – a voyage that ended with the acquisition of New Zealand and Australia for the English Crown. Others in Europe were similarly engaged for the same purpose.
Construction of the observatory was commenced in 1767 and took approximately 15 months to complete. The architect chosen by King George for the task was Sir William Chambers. Chambers was popular with the King and was to be appointed the architect for Somerset House in 1776. He was a great admirer of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio whose style Chambers almost slavishly followed.
The Observatory had a central block of two principal storeys, with canted central bays of full height on both north and south sides, containing pairs of connected octagonal rooms, with single-storey wings at east and west, all over a raised basement floor (which had high windows above ground level) and surmounted by the telescope cupola. The whole building was stuccoed (over brick). The main entrance was on the north side, with a double flight of steps. An artificial mound was built up around the building – probably as a protection against flooding. This is lower on the south side where a small porch gave direct access (down internal steps) to the basement level. (The top of the mound was about 12½ feet above the normal water level in the riverside ha-ha). Around the building, in the mound, and perhaps also conceived as flood defences or to give strength to the mound, are three rings of vaults.
As long as the Observatory remained directly in royal hands, it stood in the Old Deer Park with no external boundaries. A few years earlier, the King had given free rein to Chambers to design the garden around the royal palace known as the White House. This was when the famous pagoda was erected along with some other exotic buildings. Chambers was regarded as one of the most knowledgeable individuals of his time on China having made the arduous journey to Canton not once but twice. Chambers’ style of landscape followed the more formal Italian style of the time and thus differed markedly from the open parkland favoured by Capability Brown.
On that eagerly awaited day of 3rd June, 1769, the passage of Venus across the face of the Sun was watched by the King, the Superintendent of the Observatory Dr. Demainbray and others. Thereafter the Observatory was used regularly by the King for various purposes. The still existing glass cabinets constructed within the two main octagonal parts of the building housed ‘some excellent mathematical instruments, a collection of subjects in natural history, well preserved, an excellent apparatus for philosophical experiments, and a collection of ores from His Majesty’s mines in the forests in Germany’.
The King also had an interest in time-keeping and a collection of clocks and watches. Among these was a very accurate clock made by Benjamin Vulliamy, ‘Clockmaker to the Crown’, which was used to provide a standard time to important government buildings in London. This task was later transferred to Greenwich Observatory but not before three obelisks had been erected in the Old Deer Park in June 1778 to assist in the exact alignment of instruments in the Observatory. The northern one and the western one of the southern pair are on the true north-south meridian line passing through the west room of the Observatory which housed a tracking telescope. The other southern one is due south from the east room that at the time housed its great mural quadrant.
The Observatory passed from Royal Hands in 1840 when it was taken over by the British Association for the advancement of Science. In 1893, additional land was leased to the Observatory for its “protection” following the grant of a lease to the Mid-Surrey Golf Course and was sub-let to the Golf Club “for the pasturing of horses”. From 1910 to 1980, it was the home of the Meteorological Office. Instruments were sent from all over the country to be tested and from 1878 were branded with the coveted “KO” stamp.
During the war years, the head of the Observatory was a 28 year old Group Captain J. M. Stagg who was described by General Eisenhower as a “dour but canny Scot” and upon whose advice the General determined that the then prevailing bad weather was to change for the better and thus directly led to the order to launch D-Day on 6th June 1944. During World War II, balloons were daily despatched from the white “magnetic” huts on the property to check the winds in the upper stratosphere before launching bombing missions over Germany. These “magnetic” huts were constructed in 1854 and 1912 respectively, contain no metallic nails and were used for scientific experiments. They will be moved to the SW corner of the property.
The Observatory emerged unscathed from both World Wars although a bomb fell from a Zeppelin not far from the NE corner of the building during the World War I and another fell close to the SW corner during the blitz of World War II. The Observatory was eventually handed back to the Crown Estate Commissioners in 1981 and reverted to its more correct name the King’s Observatory. It was leased to J. E Lesser & Sons as a commercial office building to a firm of local contractors who added additional ancillary brick buildings to the property. The lease was acquired by Hill Samuel Bank in 1986 and then the current leaseholder Kew Holdings Limited in 1989. The tenant of the building for 25 years to March, 2011 was Autoglas (now Belron) who used the building as their head office in the United Kingdom.
In 1999, the Crown Estates commissioned the well-known local landscape architect Kim Wilkie to prepare a master plan for the Grade 1 landscape linking to Kew Gardens, Syon Park and Richmond. The purpose of the plan was reopen the eighteenth-century Meridian Line and the reintegration of parkland with informal recreation, sport and nature conservation. This commission resulted in The Thames Landscape Strategy Study being published the following year. Amongst other measures, this recommended the progressive reduction in the number of trees within the Old Deer Park and the consequent restoration of the original historical view lines enjoyed at the time when the Old Deer Park was inhabited by royalty. The recommendations of this Study were accepted by all stakeholders of the Old Deer Park and in time were translated by Richmond Borough Council into a mandate specifically in respect of the King’s Observatory requiring the leaseholder “to ensure that Protected Views and Vistas on the Property are maintained thereon in perpetuity” and ensured that their own Development Management Plan noted “that such parks and gardens as well as landscapes of special historic interest will be protected and enhanced and prohibits any proposals that would have an adverse effect on such settings”.
Kew Holdings Limited has enthusiastically supported the recommendations of the Thames Landscape Strategy Study from its inception. In 2007, it appointed Kim Wilkie as their own landscape architect to implement these as far as is possible within the confines of the King’s Observatory. Kim Wilkie’s proposals for the landscape around the King’s Observatory can be summarized as follows:
(i) All the ancilliary buildings at ground level that currently surround the King’s Observatory to be removed and not replaced. Any additional accommodation to be constructed to be below grade so as to be invisible from ground level thus enabling viewers to admire the centuries’ old building alone upon its own raised mound.
(ii) The existing board fence to be removed in its entirety and not replaced. Security for the site will be provided through the construction of four ha-ha’s strategically placed on each of the four compass points on its boundaries plus impenetrable heavy thicket and low plantings elsewhere. These will specifically be designed be ecologically friendly and as a haven for bird life.
(iii) All ornamental trees and bushes to be removed and replaced with semi-mature indigenous trees more suitable for a parkland setting. In order to open up the historic vistas, some trees close to the boundary on land leased by the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Course will also be removed and replaced in slightly different positions.
(iv) A pond to have an impervious lining will be constructed to the south of the King’s Observatory to improve the ambience and to provide a further haven for wild-life. (Of interest, before the construction of the Observatory, there existed such a pond although it was not quite in the same location and which seems to have disappeared around 1771.) Habitats for Kingfishers will be incorporated into the banks of the pond.
(v) Indigenous wild grasses and flowers will be seeded over the whole of the property with the exception of the grass mound of the King’s Observatory itself. Apart from being appropriate for this particular setting, it is hoped that this style of landscaping will provide a refuge for insects especially butterflies and bees. For all of this work, Kew Holdings has employed professional ecological advisors.
(vi) A more appropriate road access to be provided to the north entrance of the building and also to bring it more into keeping with the style adopted by Capability Brown. The existing road will be removed essentially at the point of the current practice range and replaced with turf. The line of the new access road will adopt a gentle arc reaching the boundary of the King’s Observatory at the NE corner of its site. If work can start in August 2013, the landscaping will be completed by October, 2013 although the replanting of the trees will be postponed until January, 2014.
The implementation of these proposals will result in the restoration of views of the King’s Observatory to those close to how it would have looked almost 250 years ago - a remarkable and historic building constructed by a King and designed by one of the Nation’s foremost architects.
Kew Holdings recognizes the importance of the Old Deer Park to its neighbour as well as the need to implement its plans in such a manner that, as far as possible, they are seamlessly incorporated into the Club’s Golf Course. With this in mind, it has been working closely with members and staff of the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club now for over two years and has adopted almost all recommendations received from the Club as to how its plans might be improved or modified to meet the Club’s requirements and best interests. Kew Holdings believe that their proposals, as well as benefiting the occupants of the King’s Observatory, will in general add to the Nation’s Heritage and in particular provide a point of interest and beauty for RMSGC Members. Within this web-site are incorporated all relevant plans that have a bearing on the construction work and long-term effects to the Golf Course. In addition there is other detail that may be of general interest to RMSGC Members.
RJF Brothers - 12th June, 2013