Un­tan­gling the Gor­dian Knot

The de­struc­tion of Clan­don in a fire in 2015 presents the Na­tional Trust with its largest ever re­con­struc­tion project and some dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions to make. John Goodall ex­am­ines the dilem­mas that it faces in achiev­ing a mean­ing­ful re­sult

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Clan­don Park, near Guild­ford, Sur­rey

John Goodall in­ves­ti­gates how Clan­don in Sur­rey is be­ing res­ur­rected

It is more than two years since Clan­don Park was con­sumed by fire. the blaze, which be­gan on April 29, was caused by an elec­tri­cal dis­tri­bu­tion board in the base­ment of the build­ing and was re­ported to the emer­gency ser­vices at 4.09pm. Staff and vol­un­teers evac­u­ated the build­ing, which was open to the pub­lic at the time, and, nine min­utes later, the first fire en­gine ar­rived.

the fire spread rapidly, ris­ing through the base­ment by way of a lift shaft that fol­lowed the line of an Ed­war­dian pre­de­ces­sor. By 5.50pm, it had spread through ev­ery floor and the flames lit the even­ing sky (Fig 1). the fol­low­ing morn­ing, the smoul­der­ing house was a roof­less, gut­ted wreck. the fire ser­vices closed the in­ci­dent on May 8.

the dra­matic spec­ta­cle of the burn­ing coun­try house, which had been re­built by thomas Onslow in about 1730 (Fig 8), an­tic­i­pated to the full its calami­tous ef­fects (Fig 3). As the fire re­port suc­cinctly states: ‘Clan­don Park was 95% dam­aged by fire, leading to the col­lapse of the roof and 95% of the in­ter­nal floors.’ De­spite this, some im­por­tant ar­chi­tec­tural fit­tings have sur­vived, in­clud­ing the prin­ci­pal fire­places, and sort­ing through the de­bris has re­vealed frag­ments of dec­o­ra­tive plas­ter­work from the in­te­rior (Fig 4).

No less dev­as­tat­ing was the loss of its con­tents. De­spite the cri­sis start­ing in mid af­ter­noon, few fur­nish­ings were re­moved. In as far as any two emer­gen­cies can be com­pared, this is in strik­ing con­trast to in­ci­dents at Hamp­ton Court in 1986, Up­park in 1989 and Wind­sor Cas­tle in 1992. The con­trast is, as yet, im­per­fectly ex­plained. Pub­lic at­ten­tion has been fo­cused in­stead on the hand­ful of objects that sur­vived, some—such as the re­mains of Clan­don’s state bed—al­most mirac­u­lously, con­sid­er­ing the state of the cham­ber it stood in

(Fig 7). The ar­chi­tec­tural frag­ments, ex­tant fur­nish­ings and works of art cleared from the ru­ins are now stored off-site await­ing con­ser­va­tion.

In the months af­ter the fire, the tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties of ex­tract­ing steel in­serted into the build­ing in the 1960s, com­bined with safety con­cerns about melted lead from the roof, meant that the ruin re­mained open to the weather un­til the end of Oc­to­ber 2015. Again, this seems slow, al­though, in fair­ness, chang­ing safety stan­dards have greatly com­pli­cated the process of se­cur­ing a ruin on this scale. The scaf­fold­ing (Fig 2) will be in place for sev­eral years.

The fire has come at a fas­ci­nat­ing mo­ment in the Trust’s his­tory, when there has been grow­ing crit­i­cism of its at­ti­tude to­wards the prop­er­ties in its care. To crit­ics, it has be­come em­bar­rassed and con­fused by these build­ings and their con­tents, un­cer­tain as to their pop­u­lar ap­peal and even their sig­nif­i­cance. It has ri­posted by cit­ing the scale of its fi­nan­cial commitment to­wards con­ser­va­tion and the many projects it has un­der­taken, most re­cently at Knole, Kent.

It is easy for crit­ics to take pot­shots at a big in­sti­tu­tion, but, in this par­tic­u­lar case, some­thing has ev­i­dently gone wrong. The

Trust’s cu­ra­to­rial branch has ef­fec­tively been marginalised within the or­gan­i­sa­tion. The ex­pert pan­els it has long re­lied upon— of Arts, ar­chi­tec­ture, ar­chae­ol­ogy and gar­dens—have been wound up and their roles sub­sumed else­where. A re­cent in­ter­nal re­view has im­plic­itly ac­knowl­edged the prob­lem and, in re­sponse, the body promised in Oc­to­ber 2016 al­most to dou­ble the num­ber of cu­ra­tors, from 36 to 65, over the next two years, as well as to ap­point a Di­rec­tor of Cu­ra­tion and Ex­pe­ri­ence to lead them. In view of these changes, the treat­ment of Clan­don be­comes a bell­weather for the Trust’s de­vel­op­ing at­ti­tude to its houses.

Clan­don was in­sured on the ba­sis of like­for-like re­con­struc­tion, so, set­ting aside the op­tion of de­mo­li­tion, it was al­most in­evitable that the build­ing would be re­con­structed in some way. How­ever, Clan­don was ac­quired by the Trust in 1956—it was not a direct gift from the Onslow fam­ily, but pur­chased as a be­quest by Lady Iveagh from them—be­cause it was a ma­jor 18th­cen­tury coun­try house with im­por­tant con­tents. To­day, the qual­i­ties that im­bued this prop­erty with sig­nif­i­cance have been al­most en­tirely lost. As if to pre-empt the crit­i­cism that it is en­gaged in a vain project to re­place the ir­re­place­able, the Trust has not plumped for a full re­build, as it did for Up­park.

In­stead, an ‘in­ter­na­tional de­sign com­pe­ti­tion’ was launched on March 9 to iden­tify ‘a world-class in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary de­sign team’, led by an ar­chi­tect, that will bring Clan­don ‘back to life through new uses’ (as yet un­spec­i­fied). More par­tic­u­larly, the project di­rec­tor hopes for ‘the care­ful restora­tion of sig­nif­i­cant his­toric rooms with the reimag­in­ing of other spa­ces, on the up­per floors’. There is much in these grand state­ments of in­tent that re­mains de­lib­er­ately open to wide in­ter­pre­ta­tion, but, in merely fi­nan­cial terms, this will be the largest project of its kind un­der­taken by the Trust.

Given the huge li­a­bil­i­ties in­volved, it is al­most in­evitable that the short­list will be led by large com­mer­cial firms of ar­chi­tects, who will as­pire to cre­ate grand mod­ern in­te­ri­ors in the up­per floors. They will then co-opt the ex­pe­ri­ence of much smaller firms of con­ser­va­tion prac­tices, who will tackle the room restora­tions. Such an ar­range­ment places the em­pha­sis of the project on the new ad­di­tions to the build­ing; read­ing be­tween the lines, it is hard not to sus­pect that the Trust is play­ing the games of many mod­ern mu­se­ums, plot­ting a pres­tige extension to a Ge­or­gian build­ing in order to re­late it to a con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence. This begs the awk­ward ques­tion of to what pur­pose is this restora­tion re­ally be­ing un­der­taken?

On this point, the Trust ap­par­ently re­mains, as yet, un­de­cided. The com­plex­ity and scale of the project present them­selves like a Gor­dian knot and, rather than cut the tan­gle by

‘Clan­don Park was 95% dam­aged by fire, leading to the col­lapse of the roof’

as­sum­ing a clear philo­soph­i­cal ap­proach, the or­gan­i­sa­tion is try­ing to tease out the strands be­fore com­mit­ting it­self. This seems sen­si­ble, but there are lim­its to what such an ap­proach can achieve; at some point, the Trust as a pa­tron needs to ar­tic­u­late clearly what it wants. Cer­tainly, the vague as­pi­ra­tion that the house be brought to life seems in­ad­e­quate in this re­gard. Not only would the al­ter­na­tive—putting it to death—be an ab­sur­dity, but even the mod­ern ad­di­tions won’t in them­selves give the build­ing a con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance un­less un­der­taken with a clear sense of func­tion.

There are hard de­ci­sions, too, in prospect even with re­gard to the restora­tion of the his­toric in­te­ri­ors. Take, for ex­am­ple, the su­perb Mar­ble Hall, which sur­vived up to the fire in broadly its 18th-cen­tury form

(Fig 5). How­ever, the hall also un­der­went an im­por­tant 19th-cen­tury al­ter­ation. When the ex­ter­nal porte-cochère was added to the build­ing in the 1870s, the main ex­ter­nal door to the room was par­tially filled in, los­ing a sky­light. The out­line of this door­way and its rough brick in­fill­ing are now clearly vis­i­ble in the gut­ted in­te­rior. Prob­a­bly at the same time, a shal­low in­ter­nal porch of tim­ber was cre­ated in­side the door to keep out drafts. The re­mains of this struc­ture, which par­tially ob­scured the in­ter­nal door­case, are still vis­i­ble.

When the in­te­rior is re­stored, should the 19th-cen­tury al­ter­ations be re­moved (and the porte-cochère shifted away as a gar­den pav­il­ion) to take the room back to its con­di­tion at the time of its builder’s death in 1740 or do they have in­tegrity as ev­i­dence of the de­vel­op­ment of the house? Pow­er­ful ar­gu­ments can be mar­shalled on both sides and, at least, the is­sues are rel­a­tively clear cut. What hap­pens with more nu­anced dis­cus­sions about changes to the plan and cir­cu­la­tion ar­range­ments made in the 18th and 19th cen­turies to the orig­i­nal de­sign or with later dec­o­ra­tive schemes? These con­sid­er­a­tions grad­u­ate al­most seam­lessly into the ques­tions of how the rooms should be fur­nished and pre­sented in the fu­ture.

The prob­lem for the Trust will be that, in each case, the is­sue will need to be painstak­ingly dis­cussed and agreed on some no­tion­ally ob­jec­tive as­sess­ment of ‘sig­nif­i­cance’. All this in an en­vi­ron­ment in which there will in­evitably be some­one who sees sig­nif­i­cance in prac­ti­cally ev­ery­thing. Ul­ti­mately, the Trust has to up­set some­one; the chal­lenge will be to for­mu­late a clear per­spec­tive that an­swers the of­fence, other­wise, it will sim­ply end up an­noy­ing ev­ery­one. It is salu­tary to think of how dif­fer­ent these prob­lems would look if there was an owner whose tastes, de­light and in­ter­est could ar­bi­trate in such dis­cus­sions (none of these words, of course, have a bear­ing on ‘sig­nif­i­cance’).

An­other de­ci­sion that is be­ing left to the fu­ture is the whole ar­range­ment of the set­ting. This is un­for­tu­nate, not least be­cause the one au­then­tic sur­viv­ing el­e­ment of the build­ing is the ex­te­rior. Hope­fully, the project will catal­yse ma­jor changes to the present ar­range­ments, all ef­fec­tively in­her­i­tances from the way the prop­erty was taken into the Trust’s care 70 years ago with only a tiny amount of as­so­ci­ated land. As a re­sult, vis­i­tor fa­cil­i­ties were crammed into the house, a mod­ern road cut past the house to serve a gar­den cen­tre and vis­i­tors ap­proached not through the his­toric park, but from the rear of the build­ing. For the fu­ture, and through ne­go­ti­a­tion, surely the house should be ap­proached down the front drive through its Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown park?

It would be un­fair only to sketch out the prob­lems pre­sented by this am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing. The restora­tion work to the house prom­ises to be of enor­mous pop­u­lar in­ter­est and the Trust is al­ready pre­pared to har­ness this. The in­te­rior house was opened up just be­fore Easter, with pro­tected walk­ways of­fer­ing ac­cess to some of the prin­ci­pal ground-floor rooms (Fig 6). This has al­ready at­tracted large num­bers of vis­i­tors. The restora­tion of the rooms will also pro­vide in­valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence for de­vel­op­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of skilled crafts­men. The ac­tual process of the work will be a force for good and de­serves to garner much at­ten­tion.

How­ever, the time will come when the con­trac­tors leave, the scaf­fold­ing is dis­man­tled and Clan­don be­gins life as a ren­o­vated build­ing. When the re­open­ing comes, the ques­tion will re­morse­lessly re­turn: to what pur­pose has the Trust re­stored this build­ing? One an­swer will be sup­plied by the pho­tographs pub­lished to cel­e­brate the re­open­ing. Will they il­lus­trate the re-cre­ated Pal­la­dian in­te­ri­ors or the new con­ceived spa­ces in the house? Will they see the value of the house in terms of its his­tory or its fu­ture? There is no right or wrong an­swer, be­cause both should seem im­por­tant, but the em­pha­sis will be sig­nif­i­cant. Hope­fully, too, the prob­lem of the build­ing’s set­ting will have been re­solved as well. If so, vis­i­tors will once again be able to grasp the com­bi­na­tion of land­cape, ar­chi­tec­ture and art that made Clan­don—and English coun­try houses gen­er­ally— such a mag­nif­i­cent and com­pelling cre­ation.

Fig 1 above: Clan­don in flames on the night of April 29, 2015. Fig 2 be­low: In Oc­to­ber 2015, the house was fi­nally scaf­folded, em­ploy­ing more than 32 miles of poles

Fig 3 above: The Mar­ble Hall af­ter the fire. Fig 4 left: One of the frag­ments of ceil­ing plas­ter res­cued from the rub­ble. Note the sheaf of reeds vis­i­ble be­hind the plas­ter. Fig 5 fac­ing page: The mar­ble hall as pho­tographed by COUN­TRY LIFE in 1927

Fig 6 above left: One of the in­ter­pre­ta­tion pan­els erected on the lines of the cov­ered pas­sages that will give vis­i­tors ac­cess to the in­te­rior through­out the restora­tion project. Fig 7 above right: The ru­ins of the state bed­room. Fig 8 fac­ing page: The Pal­la­dian Room, with its elab­o­rate 1730s ceil­ing, be­fore the fire

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