How to breathe life back into Clan­don

This great house de­serves to be lived in again, ar­gues Si­mon Jenk­ins

Country Life Every Week - - Opinion - Si­mon Jenk­ins was chair­man of the Na­tional Trust from 2008 to 2014

WHAT should be done with Clan­don? Two years have now passed since fire de­stroyed most of the in­te­rior of this su­perla­tive Ge­or­gian man­sion. Two weeks ago, a short­list of six ar­chi­tects was an­nounced for its restora­tion. How­ever, as this mag­a­zine’s Ar­chi­tec­tural Ed­i­tor, John Goodall, in­di­cated in COUN­TRY LIFE last month (May 10), choos­ing an ar­chi­tect is one thing, de­cid­ing what they do next is an­other.

As all build­ings grow old, and some come close to death, these choices are never easy. Most great houses, like great churches, re­flect many pe­ri­ods in their his­tory and are the more in­trigu­ing for it. Where would the Nor­man cathe­drals of Glouces­ter or Exeter be with­out the Goths? How­ever, ev­ery restora­tion re­quires a de­ci­sion. The Na­tional Trust, owner of Clan­don, in­her­ited Seaton Delaval in Northum­ber­land in 2009 and left it a fire-gut­ted ruin. It did like­wise to Ny­mans in West Sus­sex. On the other hand, it re­stored fire-rav­aged Up­park in West Sus­sex in 1989.

To me, not restor­ing Gi­a­como Leoni’s Pal­la­dian mas­ter­piece is un­think­able, but how ex­ten­sive restora­tion should be is an­other ques­tion. The world of con­ser­va­tion ar­gues end­lessly over sig­nif­i­cance, au­then­tic­ity and pas­tiche. Such airy con­cepts are al­ready plagu­ing the is­sue of re­in­stat­ing post-isis Palmyra. There is no truth in this, only fash­ion—and fash­ions change. The Vic­to­ri­ans re­built with gusto. The 20th cen­tury pre­ferred ‘con­serve as found’ and the cult of the sta­bilised ruin. In 2012, the Land­mark Trust broke ranks and re­turned derelict Ast­ley Cas­tle to use­ful oc­cu­pa­tion with a Mod­ernist makeover.

Dur­ing my time at the Na­tional Trust, I was ea­ger to ‘bring build­ings back to life’, in some sense of that eas­ily clichéd phrase. Most English houses, great and small, were de­signed to be a mix of habi­ta­tion, dis­play and en­ter­tain­ment. I felt how this was done should be a mat­ter for the cre­ative imag­i­na­tion of cu­ra­tors, cus­to­di­ans and vis­i­tors.

Art his­tory is a dog­matic dis­ci­pline, for the sound rea­son that all restora­tion de­stroys some­thing, even if it is just the ve­neer of time. At Clan­don, 95% of the in­te­rior is gone, al­though the walls still stand. To Dr Goodall, ‘the qual­i­ties that im­bued this prop­erty with sig­nif­i­cance have been al­most en­tirely lost’. If this word sig­nif­i­cance is so crit­i­cal, why in­deed build a fac­sim­ile?

The an­swer is that the re­in­stated ground floors at Clan­don would be ut­terly beau­ti­ful, a word far more po­tent than the scholar’s ‘sig­nif­i­cant’. Clan­don’s in­te­rior would still be by Leoni, even if ex­e­cuted in 2017 rather than the 1720s. It would in­clude one of the finest Pal­la­dian en­trance halls in Eng­land, con­tain­ing Atari’s sen­sa­tional ceil­ing and Rys­brack’s fire­places, to Pevs­ner ‘among the best he ever did’. There should be no ar­gu­ment.

More prob­lem­atic is the han­dling of the up­per floors and ser­vice quar­ters. Ever since the re-pre­sen­ta­tion of Corn­wall’s Lan­hy­drock House in 1970s Up­stairs Down­stairs mode, vis­i­tor in­ter­est in houses has moved from the dis­play rooms to their in­ner work­ings, to the kitchens and ser­vants’ quar­ters. The Na­tional Trust has a vast num­ber of empty rooms in its prop­er­ties, many hand­i­capped by an ex­ces­sive re­spect for build­ings ar­chae­ol­ogy. Old houses should re­new them­selves, pro­vided it is ap­pro­pri­ate to their orig­i­nal pur­pose and in a style that does not clash with or di­min­ish their vis­ual in­tegrity.

I can see no rea­son why ar­eas of Clan­don could not be lived in. Oc­cu­pa­tion breathes life into a place, as do events, ex­hi­bi­tions and ed­u­ca­tion. In a crowded land­scape, these houses are nat­u­ral mag­nets for liv­ing and leisure alike. The one sign of fail­ure in a great house is gaunt empti­ness.

What Clan­don needs is swift de­ci­sion, not just a re­quest for ‘ideas and sug­ges­tions’. The Trust’s Bar­ring­ton Court in Som­er­set has been trapped by such in­de­ci­sion for a decade, left to boast only its empty ‘at­mos­phere’, what­ever that is. The con­trast is glar­ing with the buzz of places such as Al­lan Bank or Wray in the Lake District or Vaughan Wil­liams’s Leith Hill Place in Sur­rey. Here, vis­i­tors are free to take over rooms, pic­nic, read, paint and make mu­sic. There is a flex­i­bil­ity and de­light to be found in the parts of houses that may ‘lack sig­nif­i­cance’. Peo­ple can make of them what they will.

The char­ac­ter of most his­toric build­ings lies in their evo­lu­tion, mishaps and all, and in the de­ci­sions taken on their reg­u­lar re­newal. All houses were once mod­ern, just as all houses one day grow old. Dr Goodall fore­casts that the Trust’s de­ci­sion on Clan­don ‘has to up­set some­one’ and may ‘sim­ply end up an­noy­ing ev­ery­one’. Per­haps so, for the mo­ment. How­ever, the new Clan­don can­not be the old Clan­don. It will be typ­i­cal of most great houses, fac­ing a new chap­ter in what we hope is an eter­nal his­tory.

Gi­a­como Leoni’s mag­nif­i­cent dou­ble-height mar­ble hall, sadly lost in the fire of 2015

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