The restoration of Clandon Park house - a 'modern' visitor attraction to rise from the ashes?
PUBLISHED: 10:23 15 March 2016 | UPDATED: 10:45 15 March 2016
Billed as the most ambitious National Trust project for a generation, the restoration of Clandon Park following last year’s devastating fire will see the property’s 18th century roots brought firmly into the modern age. Matthew Williams takes a tour of the ruins to find out what’s in store
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2016
Few can forget that fateful day last April when flames from the heart of Clandon Park – one of our county’s best-loved stately homes – clawed the night sky over Surrey. The devastating fire, which has since been blamed on an electrical fault, tore from the basement and up through the lift shaft, voids and into the roof at a breathtaking pace that quickly appeared to extinguish all hope.
Indeed, when dawn broke the next day, the Grade I listed Palladian mansion house was left little more than a smoking ruin – but, contrary to appearances, all is not lost. Nearly a year on from the blaze, the National Trust has just announced ambitious plans for the future of this 18th century country estate near Guildford – and it’s fair to say that they’ve got people talking.
“The fire was shocking, of course,” says the director general of the National Trust, Dame Helen Ghosh, as our motley crew of journalists, invited here for the first time since the blaze, is led into the scaffolding-clad structure. “But it has also given us the opportunity not only to show our respect for the heritage of the past, but also to create new heritage for the future.”
Before we hear more about what’s in store, we are given the chance to have a look around this once-beautiful building, designed by the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni in the 1720s. Entering through the striking porch – the only part visible from under the enormous scaffold tent being whipped by the wind – we are led into the property’s ghostly Marble Hall. Last time Surrey Life stood in this spectacular room, it was Champagne, canapés and wonder at a charity function. Looking around now, the memories of this grand place seem a long way away.
The floor of the evocative hall is cracked; walls that were once as white as Arctic tundra are haggard and plastered with soot; pillared columns that had stood for centuries, seemingly immovable, turn out to be hollow mock-ups; and impressive decorative works are strapped to the walls, reminiscent of bicycles on the back of a car. It makes for some pretty grim viewing but, as it turns out, there is hope...
A new chapter
“Today marks an exciting new chapter in the Clandon story, and will represent one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by the National Trust,” says Dame Helen to the assembled group. “While the loss of so many of the contents of the house means that we cannot return it to how it looked the day before the fire, our plans now involve returning parts of the house to its 18th century glory whilst at the same time creating a building of beauty and relevance for the 21st century.”
To explain in more detail, this will entail restoring the magnificent staterooms on the ground floor (including the Marble Hall and Saloon) and then running a competition later this year for an architect to bring the top floors into the modern age as an exhibition space. It will be the first National Trust property of its kind, as curator Sophie Chessum goes on to explain to us.
“While the Trust has commissioned contemporary architecture before – such as its headquarters in Swindon, which is an energy-efficient building, and undertaken major restorations, such as at Uppark in West Sussex – this is the first time that they’ve rebuilt an historic house on this scale, with a combination of heritage restoration and contemporary architecture,” she says. “So this is a very ambitious project.”
This bold vision hasn’t been without criticism, however. Some have suggested that Clandon would be best left as a romantic ruin, with the money better spent on saving one of the nation’s crumbling historic houses, while others would have preferred to see the mansion rebuilt brick-by-brick.
“This project will cost tens of millions of pounds, but if we did not rebuild and restore it in some shape or form, we would not get the insurance money at all,” says Dame Helen, in response to the former, while the upper floors, she adds, were “less architecturally significant” anyway.
Either way, the task at hand is daunting. While one of Clandon’s most important rooms, the Speakers’ Parlour (which celebrates the Onslow family’s three House of Commons speakers), miraculously survived the blaze, about 95 per cent of the house was damaged.
It’s certainly all a long way from the pristine ‘palace’ that featured in the 2008 film The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley. Now, when the wind whips the creaking scaffolding and plastic sheets above, there’s mild consternation among the group of visitors below. Piles of charred debris also remain painfully visible in adjoining rooms.
For all the destruction, however, major architectural features such as fireplaces, panelling and decorative plasterwork survive in a number of areas, including the magnificent marble chimney pieces by the renowned sculptor John Michael Rysbrack in the Marble Hall. Markers of supreme construction or good fortune, one presumes.
The restoration plans are not only contained within the walls of the mansion, either. As well as the new modern exhibition space upstairs, they are also looking to bring an additional magic to the gardens, too, with an eye on increasing visitor numbers (to give some context, in the year before the fire, Clandon Park welcomed 56,400 visitors, while Uppark had 56,800 and Hatchlands Park had 74,000).
“Following the fire, a survey was conducted by Historic England over the east lawn to inform the salvage operation,” says Dame Helen. “This survey revealed that the elaborate parterre garden, designed by Royal gardeners, London and Wise, had survived for 200 years under the lawn. This beautiful formal ‘gravell garden’ can be seen in an early 18th century painting of the first house at Clandon, and its something we hope to recreate.
“While the majority of the house restoration will be covered by insurance, the gardens will require additional donations and fund-raising. All being well, we hope for the whole project to be complete in four to five years.”
Leaving our plastic cocoon behind and venturing back outside, the nation’s media once again huddles in a polytunnel in the middle of what resembles something akin to a pop-up garden centre.
Having seen the architectural damage, we now get the chance to pore over items from the surviving collections. Trays of artefacts are stacked under canvas; conservationists clad in blue protective suits (a mix of National Trust staff and volunteers) are busy cleaning recovered items; security fences and cameras overlook the whole painstaking operation.
Some estimates suggest that 80 per cent of the property’s contents were lost to the flames, but more than 400 significant items were recovered on the night. These include a painting of an ostrich (circa 1670) by Francis Barlow, a bible printed by John Basket in 1716 and the hangings from the state bed, made in about 1710 (fortunately, these had just returned to Clandon following conservation treatment and were still packed up). As it turns out, there was also hope for items that had been presumed lost among the destruction.
“We’ve just had to treat it like an archaeological dig really,” says project archaeologist, Robert Maxwell, who is based in offices at Wisley. “We could have just cleared everything and assumed what was saved on the day was all that survived; we could have gotten really forensic about it, but that could have taken years; so hopefully we’ve managed to find a middle ground. It’s a painstaking process, and it’s obviously a task you hope never to have to face.”
As he shows me around, I spot everything from decorative wall coverings to various ceiling adornments to a broken face from a statue, all meticulously recorded alongside pictures of the original designs, ready to eventually find their way back into place through ingenious craftsmanship.
“It’s incredible to think that some of these items have fallen 40-odd-feet onto a hard floor,” says Robert. “We’re finding things all the time that volunteers had presumed must have been lost. It’s been fantastic since they managed to get the scaffolding up as well, as we rarely have to leave the house now – some of us probably wouldn’t, given a choice.
“The whole process is like a huge, exciting jigsaw. As we discover more throughout the salvage, we can slowly start fitting all the pieces together.”
With passion like that for preserving what was, it’s difficult not to get swept up in the vision of what will be. While this is a property that may not always have been as celebrated as others around the country, it was clear on that tragic night, and in the days and weeks that followed, just how deeply rooted its connection is to the community: whether that happens to be people with an historic attachment, families who had celebrated weddings, privileged guests at black-tie gatherings or dog walkers for whom it had become a sight almost taken for granted.
In Surrey, we desperately need to hold onto the heritage we have – that hasn’t already been lost into private hands or demolished in a pique of town planning – and it seems fitting that the National Trust should be continuing its pioneering path in our county. Remember, Sir Robert Hunter – one of the Trust’s founders – lived in Haslemere, and Hindhead Commons was among the charity’s very first acquisitions.
In the cold light of day, when the scaffolding is taken away, it seems the success or failure of this ambitious project will be firmly in the hands of the architect tasked with melding the future with the past. The challenge is set for a trailblazer of modern conservation – and we look forward to seeing the results.
Have your say!
Whether you’d have preferred to see Clandon Park left as a romantic ruin, restored in full, or support the National Trust’s hybrid vision, we’d love to hear from you with your thoughts. Send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
A brief history of Clandon Park
• Bequeathed to the National Trust in 1956, the Grade I listed Palladian mansion was originally designed by the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni as a home for the Onslow family in the 1720s.
• The Onslow family has been associated with the site since 1641, when Sir Arthur Onslow, MP for Surrey, relocated to the area from London.
• It was his grandson, Thomas, 2nd Baron Onslow, who went on to rebuild the manor house at Clandon Park as a Palladian mansion.
• The estate fell into disrepair in the mid-19th century before the 4th Earl of Onslow began to refurbish it after inheriting the earldom in 1870.
• Clandon Park was used as a military hospital in World War One and as a depository for the Public Records Office during World War Two.
• On Wednesday April 29, 2015, the fire broke out, wreaking devastation through 95 per cent of the property.
• Now, a new dawn, a new day, a new life…
A note on the basement
Hidden beneath the ground floor at Clandon Park, Surrey Infantry Museum had been home to 350 years of local military history. Sadly, a number of items from their collection were lost in the blaze, including regimental colours, uniforms and medals, musical instruments, and one of two footballs kicked across no-man’s land on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In happier news though, the regimental collection of historic documents, books and photograph albums had previously been transferred to the Surrey History Centre in Woking, where they remain today. There are currently no plans for the museum to return to Clandon Park.
Our latest feature on the restoration of Watts Gallery Artists' Village features in April's Surrey Life magazine