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The National Trust’s Clandon Park restoration plans help to shape future two years after fire

PUBLISHED: 10:34 06 April 2017 | UPDATED: 12:56 06 April 2017

The free-standing scaffold structure protecting Clandon Park from weather damage following the 2015 fire (Photo: National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel)

The free-standing scaffold structure protecting Clandon Park from weather damage following the 2015 fire (Photo: National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel)

©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

As the second anniversary of the fire at Clandon Park approaches, Claire Saul visits to hear about the restoration project shaping a bright new future

View into the Clandon Park ruins (Photo: National Trust Images/John Millar)View into the Clandon Park ruins (Photo: National Trust Images/John Millar)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2017

***

Shrouded in protective plastic sheeting and within a deep cocoon of scaffolding – an incredible 32 miles worth of it – Clandon Park, scarred and hollowed from the devastating fire of April 29 2015, was a harrowing sight on a recent frosty morning.

Yet that plastic and metal signifies a bright new future for this noted 18th century, Grade I Listed, Palladian former beauty. As Surrey Life reported last year, the National Trust plans to restore the ground floor rooms to their original splendour and to open up the upper floors as exhibition space, in one of their most ambitious projects undertaken to date.

“This was a twin-height, Baroque marble hall,” says project director Paul Cook, pointing to a void enclosed by patchy plaster and scorched, exposed brickwork. But the hall’s magnificent marble Rysbrack overmantles and fireplaces have remained completely intact, as has the adjacent Speaker’s Parlour, one of the most important rooms. “And this starts to inform that the restoration isn’t just desirable, it is completely achievable,” continues Paul. “Understanding what is significant and what should be restored and put back, and how that restoration looks, is what we are working through very methodically at the moment. Upstairs, the spaces were less historically significant, they were used for storage, but now there is an opportunity for them to be enjoyed and to have more relevance for a 21st century audience.”

Open house

For all the complexities and challenges, Clandon Park’s rebirth is proving to be inspirational, educational and a collaborative effort for those both within and far beyond the boundary walls of the property.

“In previous generations, the trust would have shut the site down, fulfilled the restoration project and had a grand reopening,” Paul says. “We are not doing that, we hope to get visitors back through the property for the duration of the project. There may even be opportunities, as we complete spaces, to open them for people to enjoy. We intend to be as open and accessible as possible and then, in several years time, there will be a grand reopening when the immediate objectives for the project have been fulfilled.”

Embracing that spirit, a series of garden open days welcomed visitors less than five months after the fire. 3,500 visitors viewed the exterior of the property, learned about the tasks in hand and were encouraged to question, comment and to share their ideas. Last September, a second series of open days found the first visitors viewing the house interior via a special walkway through the Saloon, an initiative that received overwhelmingly positive feedback, which also served to boost the spirits of the team as they continued with their daunting task. Volunteers have also conducted talks with community groups, residents associations, arts groups, Rotary clubs, WI, Scout groups, schools and more, to share news and listen to opinions.

“We have established a two-way conversation that we will continue right the way through the project, to help to inform what we do,” explains Paul. “That has included seven local focus groups to date with our neighbours, local parishioners and so on, to really get the dialogue going. It is great for us to be able to show where we are up to and also to ask people about their thoughts and recollections of Clandon, how they would like to interact with it going forward and the places they enjoy visiting today. It has been a great means of engagement. At one of the meetings a team member actually said, “We have never been so open, since we have been closed!”

(Re)Search and Rescue

Around 400 of Clandon Park’s most significant items were rescued during the night of the fire. Then, in September 2015, curatorial staff waited anxiously and with scant hope as a team of archaeologists began to painstakingly sift through the piles of debris in the Saloon to discover what more could be salvaged. It was no mean feat; in some areas of the house the debris reached a depth of 8ft.

“We didn’t think we were going to find anything,” project curator, Sophie Chessum, explains. “But then this little, 600-year-old South Korean stoneware duck was discovered. It had been displayed in the far side of the gallery on the storey above and there it was, having fallen 60ft, with just a couple of little surface chips. It was nothing short of miraculous and finding it on that first day gave us all a sense of hope and the energy to keep going.”

The restoration of Clandon’s precious State Bed and fine works of art challenge the team in different ways.

“The State Bed had just had some conservation work completed on it before the fire,” says Sophie. “The hangings were wrapped in a special box next to the bed and on the night that was removed by the fire service, so they are perfect. The bed itself really suffered but we are hopeful of conserving and reinstating it, although it is a really complex project. Some of the paintings were too big to evacuate during the fire, so the fire service had to cut them out of their frames with a retractable knife and roll the canvases to get them out. We were really pleased that we were able to retrieve their huge frames and their stretchers after the fire. The paintings are being carefully relined and we have been able to reunite the first painting with its edges again. An amazing job has been done.”

Post-fire, there is a unique opportunity to study the bare fabric of the building. Clandon was built to the very highest specification, a political statement in the 1720s, but an attribute which, in 2015, actually helped her to withstand the fire.

“With a house like this you would often expect there to be an archive, perhaps house plans or letters relating to the building work, but in the absence of this at Clandon a lot of the house history was expert guesswork,” says Sophie. “Now we can begin to understand the evolution of the building, construction techniques and so on. The brickwork is immaculate, a testament to the brick-makers of Surrey. These bricks were all locally handmade in the 18th century, dug from local clay, baked in local kilns and hauled by horse and cart. There is also evidence of changes of mind between Lord Onslow and the architect during the building process, for example we have discovered these beautiful brick niches at a really high level facing into the staircases, perhaps designed to house sculpture, but which were subsequently covered over.”

This project team has an enormous task ahead but it is clear that Clandon Park could not be in better hands for this process of shared discovery, learning, planning and evaluation.

“Doing the right thing now is incredibly important,” says Paul. “We really understand that this needs to be a thoughtful, careful and loving restoration. We want people to be reassured by that and also to ensure that in 50 years time, that’s how it will still be viewed. Whatever we do with the restoration or the representation of the new spaces, this has still got to read as one property and that’s quite a challenge when you have so many different aspects of the house throughout its history.

“Clandon Park was a real coalition of talent to put together, and an international one too; the Italian architect Leoni worked alongside local tradesmen from all different walks of life. We are talking about Clandon being accessible to everyone and being at the heart of a community. Just as it always was.”

***

Catch-up with Clandon Park

• For more on Clandon Park, call 01483 222482 or check nationaltrust.org.uk/clandon-park for announcements of 2017 open days.

• An overview of the Clandon Park project, presented by Highclere’s Lady Carnarvon, appears in the fifth episode of the new television series Secrets of the National Trust, which is being shown on Channel 5.

• Five 17th century K’ang Hsi porcelain vases that were rescued from the fire at Clandon are featured in the exhibition Garnitures: Vase Sets from National Trust Houses, which runs until April 30 at the V&A in London. The pieces were formerly displayed in the State Bedroom and are the first of the items saved from the fire to be placed on public display. See vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/garnitures.

***

The National Trust has launched a global search for a world-class multi-disciplinary design team. The Clandon Park International Design Competition will run until September 2017. For more information see: competitions.malcolmreading.co.uk/clandonpark
***

More for history explorers...

The restoration of Clandon Park house - a ‘modern’ visitor attraction to rise from the ashes?
Surrey Heritage Awards celebrate the best conservation and restoration projects
Escape to the country with 22 of Surrey’s prettiest villages
Saving Surrey’s historic buildings
10 of Surrey’s most intriguing historic buildings
10 of Surrey’s most intriguing history havens
Quirky places to stay in Surrey

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