Clandon Park, the great Palladian country house in Surrey has been gutted by a devastating fire. The house was given to the National Trust in 1956. Built between about 1713 and 1729, it was one of the first big houses in the Palladian style commissioned by the Whig aristocracy. It was designed by a real Italian, Giacomo Leoni, for the first Lord Onslow, Speaker of the House of Commons. Externally, the house is a rather severe classical composition, mostly of red brick. Inside there are, or were, glorious interiors with rich plasterwork. The finest room was the double-height entrance hall, with superb fireplaces and overmantels by Rysbrack. Clandon Park was also a treasure house, full of contemporary furniture, porcelain and tapestries. Until now, it had survived largely unaltered.
To judge by news reports, the fire broke out in the late afternoon of Wednesday, 29 April, and rapidly spread from the basement to the roof. It is now clear that the house has been completely gutted and most of the interiors destroyed. The only good news is that some furniture and works of art were rescued by National Trust staff and volunteers, but much that was irreplaceable has been lost. This catastrophe is yet another painful reminder of the fragility of all that is old, precious and beautiful. The fire is horribly reminiscent of that which gutted Uppark in 1989. It is not yet known what caused it, or why it spread so terrifyingly rapidly at a time when the house was open and occupied. All too often, alas, the cause is restoration work. A workman’s blowlamp was responsible for the fires at Uppark, at the City Church of St Mary-at-Hill and, most recently, at the Battersea Arts Centre, while a conservator’s lamp seems to have started the Windsor Castle fire. The dreadful fire which gutted the west wing of Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art last year was caused by an inflammable student ‘installation’. The cause of the fire which destroyed the glorious 17th-century woodwork in Brancepeth Church is not known but may well have been arson.
It seems worse, of course, when historical artefacts are destroyed by enemy action, arson, nationalist hatred or religious fanaticism, as with the anti-historical Wahhabi Islam behind the iconoclasm of ISIS. But losing precious, irreplaceable things like the contents of Clandon Park is no less painful when the cause is a stupid accident. The National Trust carefully reconstructed Uppark after the disaster. We must hope that something of the same can be done at Clandon.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on 1 May 2015 to incorporate new information regarding the extent of the damage to the interiors.