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There’s no need for the future of Clandon Park to be a restoration drama

1 September 2022

When an electrical fault torched a Palladian villa in Surrey seven years ago, the disaster threatened to divide the heritage world. Should Clandon Park, a country house designed by Giacomo Leoni in the 1720s, be restored down to the last detail or gently repaired as an accurate evocation informed by the ruin itself? Little more than a devastated shell survives. The National Trust, the house’s guardians since 1956, have faced this dilemma before. Uppark, which burned in 1989 was, contentiously, subject to a full restoration. For Clandon, an international architectural competition was held in 2017 with the winners being Allies & Morrison collaborating with conservation specialists Purcell. In July, this team revealed substantially revised plans working closely with the National Trust’s Project Director Kent Rawlinson and with Sophie Chessum, who was the house’s curator before the fire.

The new scheme is being undertaken by the same team. The full restoration of the state rooms is no longer judged feasible, neither on material let alone financial grounds. They will instead be presented, repaired and interpreted as their condition warrants. Thousands of visitors have visited the actual site for themselves, as well as those who can visit the online presentation of works, both in hand and envisaged, for an insight into the complexities of conservation that have arisen at every turn.

Clandon Park in Surrey, the day after the fire of 29 April 2015. Photo: Peter Macdiarmind/Getty Images

No such understanding, however, informs the recent intervention of Restore Trust, a self-styled ‘forum where members, supporters and friends of the National Trust can discuss their concerns about the future of the charity’. Restore argues that the family that gave Clandon Park to the National Trust has been ignored – despite evidence that the Onslows couldn’t have tried harder to slough the house off. The 6th Earl lived there briefly after the Second World War but as Dame Jennifer Jenkins, who chaired the National Trust until 1990 and wrote its history, explains, he ‘gave up the struggle’. In 1956 an aunt handed the house over, rundown and empty but for its decorative fittings. Only the Gubbay bequest, a donation of rococo furniture made to the Trust in the late 1960s and accompanied by a handsome endowment, saved Clandon Park. With that, the Trust’s then favourite decorator, John Fowler, was entrusted to restore the house to satisfy contemporary connoisseurship.

Despite its peevish denunciation of the National Trust’s strategy for Clandon Park, Restore Trust mentions none of this background, seemingly intent on sowing discord in the membership as the Annual General Meeting approaches in early November by trailing hints about misspent insurance money; the Trust has said that Clandon’s restoration, in whatever form, will be funded by the insurance payout and from its own reserves.

The first tranche of £20m will cover the repair and strengthening of the exterior envelope – taking Clandon Park back to the building that its admirers will recognise in every detail, topped by a new roof providing terraces for the visiting public. After that, the immense task of conserving and repairing key elements of the interior (most of which is still in storage) is set to require much more expenditure. With this revised approach, Clandon Park will emerge as a memory of a substantially lost, essentially irreplaceable work, as well as offering a tutorial to public and professionals alike in the fabric and construction of a sophisticated Italianate country house now stripped bare.

The Speakers’ Parlour at Clandon Park, Surrey. Photo: © National Trust Images/Anthony Parkinson

Of the grand rooms, only the intact Speakers’ Parlour (three Onslows held that key parliamentary role, one for 33 years) will be fully open. The full-height Marble Hall will be on view, and its glories suggested by surviving elements, but not restored to its former magnificence as had been suggested in the 2017 scheme. Instead, walkways and platforms will bring visitors to what remains. Such interventions will give the public access to fire-damaged but, by then, carefully displayed spaces. They will present exhibitions and work in progress to throw light on the house as built and as almost destroyed. Key items such as volumes from the library, which became fused together in the heat and are for now deep frozen, will be conserved and put on show. Salvage and recent research into the building (backed up by existing scholarship), have provided countless revelations over the last seven years. The eventual outcome will be a statement of the possible. After all, Seaton Delaval Hall, designed by John Vanbrugh, entered the Trust’s portfolio in 2009 with a spectacular fire-damaged stone hall as its central glory.

The debate over Clandon Park makes one thing plain: the more shifts and turns that the National Trust negotiates in its near 130 years, the more it faces the same old tensions. Octavia Hill, nearing the end of her life and protective of the great national achievement that her Trust had become, was adamant that the organisation she had co-founded should not burden itself with empty mansions. Barrington Court, the very first such property, was not suitable or appealing enough for public access and presented the nascent Trust with terrible financial headaches given its poor condition. Yet the National Trust Act of 1907 insisted that the organisation’s holdings be inalienable, thus unable to be sold or mortgaged. And while Hill and her fellow founders were happy with a handful of modest structures set in the landscape, their successors inherited a growing architectural portfolio. Ironically, Robin Fedden, the charity’s historic buildings secretary in the 1960s, recalled that for many people securing Wicken Fen for wildfowl was of greater importance ‘than the contemporary acquisition of Palladian splendour at Clandon Park’ – and well worth the considerable expense.

In 2022, the pared-down scheme for Clandon Park descried by Restore Trust as ‘modernist’, a favourite term of opprobrium in such quarters, is surely realistic as the charity faces increasingly uncertain times. Grant aid and membership revenues are unlikely to remain secure sources of income in the coming period. Meanwhile, malcontents might look at Barrington Court as the National Trust embarks on massive roof repairs. That house is closed. Octavia Hill, fully supported by the Trust’s first director, Nigel Bond, was prescient. When I wrote her biography in the 1980s, her godson Romilly Ouvry told me that she had always considered the acquisition of buildings as a way of saving the countryside for a wider public. Inalienability, it turns out, is a two-edged sword.

Gillian Darley’s books include John Soane: An Accidental Romantic and a biography of Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust.