The Royal Gardens

The Queen & Kew - A Royal Partnership

Kew flowers

It was not until the arrival of Sir Joseph Banks as head of the botanic garden of Kew in 1773 that the institution won an international reputation. Banks shared with George III a determination to use exotic and native plants for economic purposes, thereby determining the future line of development of the gardens. In the following decades, plant researchers travelled all over the world to bring back new species (from India, Abyssinia, China and Australia) and Kew became the centre of botanic economics for Great Britain and its colonies.

The Queen celebrates her 80th Birthday at Kew
Celebrating her 80th Birthday at Kew in 2006

In 1764, Lancelot ‘Capability' Brown began to leave his imprint on the Richmond gardens, opening up large vistas and carrying out informal plantations. William Chambers was working in the neighbouring gardens of Kew. The botanic gardens were developed, an arboretum was founded and the small glasshouses increased in number. In 1802, the wall separating the two estates of Richmond and Kew was demolished.

The deaths of Sir Joseph Banks and of George III in 1820 plunged the gardens into a period of decline that was destined to last for around twenty years. Following a parliamentary enquiry and a strong campaign of support, the gardens were saved from irremediable closure. The appointment of Sir William Hooker as the first official director ushered in a period of revitalisation (1841-1885).

William Nesfield, assisted by Decimus Burton, remodelled the gardens at Richmond and Kew, which now formed a single landscaped ensemble. From this period date the construction of the two remarkable glasshouses (Palm House and Temperate House), the foundation of the herbarium and the creation of the national arboretum. Kew helped provide a new impetus for scientific research in the interest of the British Empire, which sent seeds, plants and horticultural advice to its colonies (such as Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka).

With the change of fashions and the development of the gardens, certain elements of the complex landscape devised by William Nesfield were gradually adjusted to facilitate upkeep, and new projects were undertaken, such as the restructuring of the arboretum, the creation of the Alpine garden, and the Japanese gateway.

Celebrating her 80th Birthday at Kew in 2006

As the number of visitors increased, the scientific collections were enriched (the herbarium was extended in 1903 and then again in 1932) and glasshouses and spaces were altered to house living plant collections (such as the first Alpine House in 1887 and the Rhododendron House in 1925).

While the Second World War inflicted some material damage on Kew Gardens, the slowdown in its activities, already in evidence with the decline of the British Empire, was confirmed. The bicentenary of the creation of the gardens gave a new impetus which resulted in the restoration and reopening of the Palm House, and the improvement of the Rock Garden, the Azalea Garden and the Order Beds. As these interventions were not sufficient to accommodate the growing collections, some specimens were moved to a 200-hectare garden at Wakehurst (1965). New glasshouses with more advanced technology were built such as the Alpine House (1981), and in particular the Princess of Wales Conservatory (1986). In 1963, the Jodrell Laboratory was rebuilt to a larger design to accommodate the constantly growing number of researchers. The main activities of Kew Gardens today are the conservation of the heritage of the site itself, and the conservation of ecosystems worldwide.

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