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 area in which it is situated 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 on the site where the great Carthusian Monastery – built on the orders of Henry V in 1414 – had once commanded the landscape prior to it being partially dismantled during the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII and finally completely under Queen Elizabeth 1.
The King entrusted the landscaping of his expanded deer park to Capability Brown – one of England’s greatest landscape architects. The Old Deer Park offered extensive views across the Thames to the Norman Church at Isleworth and the impressive Syon House.
King George III, ever fascinated with the science of his time, early in the process conceived the idea of constructing an observatory within his park with the general intention of being able to nurture his interest in astronomy and in particular observe the transit of the Planet Venus across the face of the Sun 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.
King George’s favourite architect Sir William Chambers was given the task of designing the observatory. Chambers was the most famous English architect of his time and one of his subsequent important commissions was the design of Somerset House in 1776. Chambers was a great admirer of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio and had earlier been acquainted with the Swedish Astronomer Anders Celsius who built the Uppsala Observatory in Sweden in 1740. The construction of the Observatory was completed in time to view the Transit on 3rd June, 1769. The Observatory’s telescope cupola is the oldest of its type anywhere in the World.
The Observatory was thereafter used regularly by the King for various purposes including providing a school house for the education of the royal children. The existing glass cabinets constructed within the two main octagonal parts of the building, and which have recently been restored, 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 maintained a collection of clocks and watches within the building. Among these was a very accurate clock made by Benjamin Vulliamy, ‘Clockmaker to the Crown’, which provided “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 later 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 land in turn was sub-let to the Golf Club “for the pasturing of horses”. From 1910 to 1980, the then named Kew Observatory was the home of the Meteorological Office and was from where weather reports went out to the Country. Instruments were sent from all over to be tested and from 1878 branded with the coveted “KO” stamp.
In 1999, the Crown Estates commissioned a master plan for the Grade 1 landscape linking to Kew Gardens, Syon Park and Richmond. A 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”.
The most recent landscaping for the building completed in 2018 was in line with the Thames Landscape Strategy Study and has restored some of the views of the King’s Observatory to what they would have been 250 years ago. It has also been designed to be ecologically friendly and act as a haven for bird life and a refuge for insects and other wildlife.
The building – constructed by a King and designed by one of the Nation’s foremost architects – stands today as part of the Nation’s Heritage. The beauty of the building and its surroundings are shared with the local residents when it opens its doors to the public annually.
RJF Brothers – May, 2022