Farther afield: A Lost Paradise: The Clandon Park Fire

Editorial Staff Magazine


Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni created a magnificent Palladian residence for Thomas, the 2nd Baron Onslow, in the 1720s on the estate outside of Guildford, in Surrey, south of London, that the baron’s great-grandfather Richard Onslow, the MP for Surrey, had purchased in 1641. The dignified restraint of Leoni’s exterior hid a luxuriant interior oozing with Georgian glamour. Its most famous room, the double-storied Marble Hall, featured exuberant marble chimneypieces by Michael Rysbrack and rococo stuccowork by Giuseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti and was showcased in the 2008 film The Duchess, in which it appeared as the dining hall of Devonshire House.

As with so many great estates, Clandon Park became too expensive to maintain in the postwar era. In 1956 Gwendolyn, Countess Iveagh, who had grown up there, purchased the property from her nephew and donated it to the National Trust to ensure its survival. It made an especially important gift because, remarkably for a house that had been in continual use, relatively few modifications had been made to its original design.

The decorator John Fowler supervised the house’s refurbishment with loans from the National Trust collections as well as donations that allowed Clandon Park to accrue substantial holdings of furniture, porcelain, silver, tapestries, and paintings.    


Top: The south façade and formal garden of Clandon Park, Surrey—designed by Giacomo Leoni, and built in the 1720s—prior to the April 29 fire. © National Trust Images/Anthony Parkinson. Left: The double-story Marble Hall at Clandon Park featured an ornate plasterwork ceiling attributed to Giuseppe Artari, and marble fireplaces with overmantel reliefs by Michael Rysbrack. © National Trust Images/ Anthony Parkinson. Right: The Marble Hall the day after the fire. © National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie.

At just after 4 pm on Wednesday, April 29 the local fire brigade received word that a fire had broken out in the basement of Clandon Park. Their response was swift. Nevertheless, unusually high winds fueled the flames more quickly than they could be fought. Units from neighboring counties and even London joined the effort, with a total of eighty firemen toiling together. But it took until 2 am to successfully extinguish the blaze.

Helen Ghosh, director general of the National Trust declared, “the house is now essentially a shell.” Nevertheless, one important stateroom, the Speakers’ Parlour, miraculously survived with relatively little damage even to its window treatments and the chimneypiece by Leoni. Supports have been erected to bolster its fragile plasterwork ceiling. Oversized portraits of the three Onslow speakers of the House of Commons that give the room its name were saved but had to be cut from their frames in order to remove them quickly.

In fact, a significant number of items from throughout the house were rescued due to the efficient enactment of an emergency plan. As news of the fire spread, colleagues from nearby National Trust properties and local residents assisted Clandon’s core staff. A primary school in the vicinity voluntarily closed to become an ad hoc storage warehouse.

Objects retrieved include a large seventeenth-century painting of an ostrich by Francis Barlow and a set of hall chairs with the Onslow crest, all from the Marble Hall. On the day after the blaze a fireman salvaged two marble busts that he found in the rubble of this same room. The salvage operation also brought important silver, furniture, books, and even an eighteenth-century board listing the rules of conduct for the servants’ hall to safety. The magnificent hangings of Clandon’s bed of state survived because they had just returned from conservation and had not yet been unpacked. Two paintings whose conservation was funded by the Royal Oak Foundation survived because they were offsite for conservation.




A week after fire nearly gutted Clandon Park, only one room—the Speakers’ Parlour—remains relatively unscathed. © National Trust Images/John Millar.

Sadly, an estimated 80 percent of the collection has been lost, and investigation into what caused this devastating fire is underway. The future of Clandon Park remains uncertain. Its glorious gardens by Lancelot “Capability” Brown survive, but can the house be rebuilt or must it remain a ruin? Precedent lies in the recent rebuilding of Uppark, in Sussex, after suffering its own fire in 1989; hope, in the high degree of documentation detailing Clandon’s former state. From the 8th Earl of Onslow to local villagers and architectural historians, Clandon lovers responded with an immediate vow to find a future for this scorched treasure.

As it evaluates the best path forward, the National Trust has set up a fund for those wishing to contribute specifically to this project. Americans wishing to make a tax-deductible donation can do so through a similar fund organized by the Royal Oak Foundation, which can be found on its website (www.royal-oak.org/). Additional Royal Oak drives benefit other beloved properties such as Stourhead, Knole, and Ham House.

Firefighters salvaged any remaining objects. © National Trust Images/John Millar.

Marilyn Fogarty, interim executive director of the Royal Oak Foundation, explains that the organization “was founded in 1973 as a way for Americans to support the efforts of the National Trust of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.” She points out that “at least 1,900 country houses were demolished in the United Kingdom in the course of the Twentieth Century.” She describes Royal Oak’s mission to provide Americans with opportunities “to experience, learn about and support” culturally significant properties that remain (members get unlimited access to over 350 National Trust properties).

The Royal Oak Foundation is focusing this year on raising money to improve cataloguing, digitization, and research into the National Trust’s unrivalled furniture holdings, an estimated seventy thousand pieces. Many have never been catalogued, while others require further study. Christopher Rowell, the National Trust’s curator of furniture, intends to publish a book of highlights in 2019. 

Mount Stewart

Just one week prior to the Clandon Park fire the National Trust triumphantly announced the reopening of Mount Stewart, on the shores of Strangford Lough in County Down in Northern Ireland, after a three-year renovation that cost roughly £8 million ($12.2 million). The National Trust’s site manager, Jon Kerr, describes it as the organization’s “most significant investment in Northern Ireland in quite some time.”

The Spanish Garden at Mount Stewart, County Down. ©National Trust Images/Alex Ramsay.

The property has been renovated to highlight the era of Edith, Lady Londonderry, who made it her primary residence in the 1920s and who created the unusual and lush gardens for which the property is best known. These have been carefully replanted (partially funded by the Royal Oak Foundation) to return them to their former glory.

After receiving a complete overhaul, the house has also been painstakingly restored and filled with objects belonging to the many generations of the marquesses of Londonderry and their ancestors, who resided there from the mid-eighteenth century. Highlights include eleven family portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence and the so-called Congress of Vienna desk that belonged to Mount Stewart’s most famous resident, British Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh. Loans, donations, and purchases as well as a close working relationship with the current marquess and other members of the Vane-Tempest-Stewart family have allowed important objects as well as smaller, personal items to bring the house to life. The Royal Oak Foundation has made significant contributions to the library.

More than two hundred volunteers contributed to the meticulous restoration of Mount Stewart’s interiors, including the re-creation of textiles and original plasterwork. The project in fact spawned a studio where young apprentices learn conservation techniques.

The completion of this ambitious project in a region where such an undertaking would have been unthinkable not many years ago provides a beacon of hope to mitigate the heartbreak of the destruction of Clandon Park.

For more information on the Clandon Park appeal, visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

For more information on the Royal Oak Foundation, visit http://www.royal-oak.org.