The King’s Observatory, located in the Old Deer Park, Richmond Surrey, was commissioned in 1769 by King George III. It’s arcadian setting in just under 7 acres must be one of the most beautiful properties in the London area.
The house has an interesting history. King George III, who at the time had his country retreat in nearby Richmond Lodge and had only recently ascended to the throne, wished to create an impressive park for his private use. With this goal in mind, he acquired and demolished existing buildings at the hamlet of West Sheen on the extreme West of the Old Deer Park. These buildings then stood where the great Carthusian Monastery – built on the orders of Henry V in 1414 – had once commanded the landscape prior to being partially dismantled during the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII and later completed under Queen Elizabeth 1.
The King entrusted the landscaping to Capability Brown – one of England’s greatest landscape architects. The park offered extensive views amongst which, across the River Thames. were the Norman Church at Isleworth and the impressive Syon House.
In keeping with his “swept” style views of the English countryside, Capability Brown made extensive use of a feature named as the “Ha-Ha”. This was 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.” The King’s Observatory has four recently constructed ha-ha’s located on its boundaries at each point of the compass permitting unobstructed views over the surrounding golf course.
King George III, ever fascinated with the science of his time, conceived the idea of constructing an observatory within his park with a view generally to observing the heavens but in particular the transit of the Planet Venus across the face of the Sun which was then predicted to occur in 1769. This rare astronomical event would permit astronomers 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 dispatched to the South Seas – a voyage that ended with the acquisition of New Zealand and Australia for the English Crown. Other European astronomers were similarly engaged in observing and recording the transit of the planet.
The architect chosen by King George for the task was Sir William Chambers. Chambers was popular with the King and indeed was the most famous English architect of his time. One of his most important commissions was the construction of Somerset House in 1776. Chambers was a great admirer of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio whose style he mostly slavishly followed. The construction of the Observatory was completed in time to view the Transit on 3rd June, 1769. The Observatory cupola, housing its telescope, is now the oldest of its type in the World.
The Observatory has a central block of two principal stories, with canted central bays at 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 is stuccoed over brick. The main entrance was on the north side, with a double flight of steps. A complimentary double flight of steps has now been constructed on the south side. The building was placed over three rings of vaults to raise it above the Thames flood plain. Much later, an extra storey was added to each wing which greatly improved the symmetry of the building and resulted in the building as it now stands.
Chamber’s interests extended beyond architecture and he was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most knowledgeable individuals of his time on Chinese landscape design. He made the arduous sea voyage to Canton not once but twice. Chambers’ style of landscape followed the more formal Italianate style of the time and thus differed markedly from the open parkland favoured by Capability Brown. This difference in styles gave rise to much friction between the two. Chambers also designed the recently renovated famous Kew Pagoda in Kew Gardens.
The passage of Venus across the face of the Sun was observed at the appointed hour and day from the cupola of the King’s Observatory by the King, Queen Charlotte, the Superintendent of the Observatory Dr. Demainbray and other well known scientists of the day. The sky was clear and excellent views of the transit were secured although, because the event did not commence until late afternoon, only part of the transit could be observed. Thereafter the Observatory was used regularly by the King for various purposes including the education of the royal children. The 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’ and have recently been restored.
The King maintained 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 southern obelisk 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. Responsibility for the building was assumed by the Kew Committee of the Royal Society in 1871. As long as the Observatory remained part of the King’s own personal estate, it had no external boundaries. However, in 1893, additional land was leased to the Observatory for its “protection” following the grant of a lease to the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club. Part of this in turn was sub-let to the Golf Club “for the pasturing of horses”. A wooden boundary perimeter fence was constructed at the same time. From 1910 to 1980, the then named Kew Observatory was the home of the Meteorological Office and was the site of all public weather observations “at Kew”. Instruments were sent from all over the country to be tested and from 1878 were branded with the coveted “KO” stamp.
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. During that war, weather balloons were daily dispatched from the white “magnetic” huts on the property to check the winds in the upper stratosphere before the bombers were sent on missions to Germany. These “magnetic” huts were constructed in 1854 and 1912 respectively, contain no metallic nails and were used for scientific experiments. They were recently moved to the SW corner of the property.
One head of the Meteorological Office was 28 year old Group Captain J. M. Stagg who was described by General Eisenhower as a “dour but canny Scot”. It was Stagg’s forecast that the then prevailing bad weather was to change for the better and upon which the General based his fateful decision on 5th June 1944 to launch the D-Day landings on the Normandy Beaches the following day.
The Observatory was eventually handed back to the Crown Estate Commissioners in 1981 and reverted to its name of the King’s Observatory. It was leased 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 Autoglass who used the building as their head office. Permission to change the use of the building from commercial to residential was granted in 2014.
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. A renewed landscape was envisaged that would re-open the eighteenth-century Meridian Line and reintegrate the parkland for informal recreation, sport and nature conservation. This commission resulted in The Thames Landscape Strategy Study being published the following year. Amongst other measures, this Study recommended the progressive reduction in the number of trees within the Old Deer Park and the consequent restoration of the original historical view lines earlier enjoyed. The Study’s recommendations were accepted by all stakeholders of the Old Deer Park and in time were translated by Richmond Borough Council into a mandate specifically for the King’s Observatory which requiring the leaseholder “to ensure that Protected Views and Vistas on the Property are maintained thereon in perpetuity” and noted for its own Development Management Plan “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. It appointed its author Kim Wilkie as its own landscape architect to implement these as far as is possible within the confines of the King’s Observatory. The new landscaping, apart from being appropriate for this particular setting, has been specifically designed to be ecologically friendly acting as a haven for bird life and a refuge for insects and other wildlife. It has been able to restore some of the views of the King’s Observatory to how they would have been 250 years ago.
From the start Kew Holdings has recognized the significance of its site to its neighbour the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club and has always done its best to work closely with members and staff of the Club. It believes that the renovation of the King’s Observatory building and surroundings has created a significant added area of interest and attraction for the Club’s members.
Kew Holdings is also confident that it has added to the Nation’s Heritage through its restoration of this remarkable and historic building – constructed by a King and designed by one of the Nation’s then foremost architects. So as to share the beauty of the building and its surroundings with the local residents, it opened its doors to the public for the first time in February this year and plans to repeat the exercise in October to meet what, in the event, turned out to be an overwhelmingly positive response and demand.