The King's Observatory
AN 18TH CENTURY LANDMARK
The King's Observatory, commissioned by King George 111 and completed in 1769, is located in the Old Deer Park, Richmond Surrey and has a land area of just under 7 acres. In its arcadian setting, the house and grounds must be one of the most beautiful properties in the London area.
The house has an interesting history. King George 111, 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 Park. These buildings stood where the great Carthusian Monastery - built on the orders of Henry V in 1414 - had once commanded the landscape prior to being dismantled during the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII and later finished off under Queen Elizabeth 1.
The land so acquired was named The Old Deer Park with the landscape designed for the King by Capability Brown - one of England's greatest landscape architects. The parkland offered extensive views of the River Thames and strollers along the towpath on the Park's northern perimeter had views of the Norman Church at Isleworth and the impressive building of Syon House - owned by the Dukes of Northumberland.
In keeping with his "swept" style views of the English countryside, Capability Brown made extensive use of the peculiarly English addition to the art of landscaping - the Ha-Ha. " 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." The original Ha-Ha was within that part of the Old Deer Park that is now Kew Gardens. The King's Observatory has four recently constructed ha-ha's located on its boundaries at each point of the compass to enable its occupants to have unobstructed views over the golf course.
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 is repeated every 105 and 121 years - 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 dispatched 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 in observing and recording this rare astrological event.
The architect chosen by King George for the task was Sir William Chambers. Chambers was popular with the King and was the most famous architect of his time. One of his most important commissions was the construction of Somerset House in 1776. He was a great admirer of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio whose style Chambers mostly slavishly followed and has also done to great effect here. The construction of the Observatory was completed in 1769 in time for the King to view the Passage. The Cupola housing the telescope is the oldest of its type in the World.
The Observatory has a central block of two principal storeys, 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 was 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.
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 design. He made the arduous sea voyage 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. This gave rise to some friction between the two. Chambers designed for the King and Queen the famous Kew Pagoda.
The passage of Venus across the face of the Sun was observed from the King's Observatory by the King, Queen Charlotte, the Superintendent of the Observatory Dr. Demainbray and others early in the morning of the 3rd June, 1769. The sky was clear and excellent views of the transit were secured. 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. 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 Course. This in turn was sub-let to the Golf Club “for the pasturing of horses”. A wooden boundary perimeter fence was constructed. From 1910 to 1980, the Observatory 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.
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, 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 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 took his fateful decision on 5th June 1944 that the then prevailing bad weather was to change for the better and that the the order could be given to launch D-Day 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. 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 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 enjoyed at the time when the Old Deer Park was occupied by royalty. 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 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. Its new landscaping, apart from being appropriate for this particular setting, has been specifically designed to be ecologically friendly by acting as a haven for bird life and a refuge for insects and other wild life. It has restored the views of the King's Observatory to how they would have been 250 years ago at the time it was built.
Kew Holdings has from the start recognized the significance of its site to its neighbour the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club and has worked closely with members and staff of the Club. It believes in this regard that it has created a significant area of interest and attraction for the Club's members.
The Company is 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. To share the beauty of the building's architecture and location with the local residents, it is now considering opening the property to the Public for specific times each year.
RJF Brothers - June, 2018