Discovering the many layers of Clandon Park

Published: 19 April 2021

Last update: 19 April 2021

Blog post
This blog post is written by Dr Kent Rawlinson, Project Director, Clandon Park Dr Kent Rawlinson Project Director, Clandon Park
Clandon’s roof was destroyed by the fire in 2015, leaving it open to the skies.

Our Project Director, Dr Kent Rawlinson, reflects on the fascinating challenges and discoveries we've uncovered so far as we care for this extraordinary house.

This April marks six years since a powerful fire took hold of Clandon Park, Surrey. It stripped away most of the house’s interiors, burning through many of the timber walls and floors that divided it into over forty rooms. 

I remember the shock of watching the fire on television – as I imagine many of you do – never thinking that I would subsequently have the privilege of joining the team charged with breathing new life into this remarkable building.

Some members of our team have worked consistently and tirelessly on Clandon since the day of the fire. Neither they, nor those who have subsequently joined them, could have imagined how complex and how fascinating the challenges ahead would be. Even with the support of our partners and the knowledge of our teams, there is no handbook to follow, no simple solution when it comes to a challenge like this.

Major fires in historic buildings are mercifully rare and when they do occur each is different in scale and impact. Our team were hosting visitors when the alarm went off and our first priority was to get everyone to safety. Care of people always comes first and very fortunately no one was injured. Sadly, however, much more of the building was affected, and a far greater proportion of the collections lost, than had been the case at Uppark in 1989, the last time a Trust house was seriously damaged by fire. 

After the fire, the house was left without windows, a roof and many of the timber partitions that had separated it into rooms
After the fire, the house was left without windows, a roof and many of the timber partitions that had separated it into rooms
After the fire, the house was left without windows, a roof and many of the timber partitions that had separated it into rooms

With the support of many people and organisations, we immediately went into action, responding to the evolving emergency we faced. After firefighters had controlled the blaze, we spent nearly a year painstakingly salvaging elements of the unique collections and furnishings, and physically stabilising the gutted shell of the building. This was a difficult and emotional experience for all involved, especially for those who had been caring for the house before the fire.

Archaeologists sifting through the ashes of fire-damaged room at Clandon Park
Archaeologists sifting through the ashes of fire-damaged room
Archaeologists sifting through the ashes of fire-damaged room at Clandon Park

In 2017, the Trust announced an international competition to select the architects we would work with to develop a sensitive and purposeful approach to the future of Clandon.

I joined the project in mid-2018, a few months before our winners Allies and Morrison began initial feasibility and design work, alongside a world-class design team of curators, conservators, engineers, quantity surveyors and other specialists. 

Learning and discoveries 

Working on Clandon is a journey of discovery. I have been involved with historic buildings all my professional life, as have many of those in our team, but nonetheless Clandon is a revelation. Heartbreakingly, the fire stripped away stunning decorative plasterwork, gilded panelling, rare wallpapers, numerous doors and floors – completely in most spaces and partially in others.

This process has, however, revealed layer-upon-layer of the historic building – and its brick skeleton – in unique and remarkable ways. Above all, it reveals how a house like Clandon was made – brick by brick, piece by piece – by many hands over many generations. A physical story usually hidden from view.

The fire stripped away the wallpaper in the State Bedroom, revealing the blue wooden panelling hidden beneath
The fire stripped away the wallpaper in the State Bedroom, revealing the blue wooden panelling hidden beneath
The fire stripped away the wallpaper in the State Bedroom, revealing the blue wooden panelling hidden beneath

Uncovering Clandon's secrets

Since the fire, we have discovered many new things about the house:

  • We are closer than ever before to establishing the actual date the house was completed. Using tree ring analysis of the fallen timbers salvaged from the fire, we have found that the main timbers inside the house were felled in 1729, which means the house was likely completed in the 1730s. 
  • We now know that the house was built without foundations onto solid Surrey chalk – something unthinkable in the context of our modern building regulations.
  • The brick walls of the house, which helped it survive the fire, are in some places over 1m thick. These walls also contain stones taken from the earlier Jacobean house which the Onslows levelled and replaced. 
  • It seems that the original plan for the house wasn’t finalised or certain when building began. Numerous doorways and alcoves, previously hidden beneath wall coverings and revealed when the fire burnt these away, show how the architect and builders kept their options open, allowing them to reshape spaces as they went.
  • The State Bedroom (presented with rich red wallpaper before the fire) was originally a bright blue wood panelled room. Large areas of this panelling now stand revealed by the fire. 
  • We are still learning about how the iconic plasterwork, for which Clandon was famous, was made. We now know that a rough latticework of nails and timber held together the delicate plaster forms and figures, previously a professional secret closely guarded by a handful of eighteenth-century craftsmen.
  • The presence of protective ‘witches’ marks’ have been discovered on exposed timbers – shapes and symbols scratched into them by superstitious builders to ward off witches and evil spirits.

In the past, we have often talked of Clandon as being built by the Onslow family, designed by the renowned Italian architect Giacomo Leoni, or lavishly decorated by the Swiss master plaster-sculptor Giuseppe Artari. What we are now seeing, and really understanding in practice for the first time, is the role of hundreds of other craftsmen, labourers and specialists whose individual work and skill together brought Clandon into being.

It often strikes me that Clandon today appears very much like it might have in the early 1730s when it was first being built. If you’ve never visited an early-eighteenth century building site, Clandon today gives you that opportunity.

Understanding this history, the process and techniques which made Clandon, is far from a purely academic exercise. Rather, it is vital to our understanding of the house’s current condition and how best to respond to it. It is also helping us and others in the heritage sector to better understand how other early eighteenth-century houses were built and crafted.

Much of what survives, both masonry and decorative schemes, is extremely fragile. From brickwork repairs to skilled plaster conservation, it is essential that we have a thorough understanding of the original materials and craft techniques employed in making the house – and of how the fire has affected these materials.

This decorative fireplace in the Saloon has been badly damaged by the fire
This decorative fireplace in the Saloon has been badly damaged by the fire
This decorative fireplace in the Saloon has been badly damaged by the fire

Behind the scenes

Major construction work isn't happening inside the house yet. There are many stages of planning, specification, and preparation we have to undertake in order to begin physical work, which is all happening behind the scenes. 

Much work has and continues to happen within the house. Some of the most memorable moments in the past years include the huge mission to stabilise the surviving structure; the protection of the building by 31 miles of scaffolding and a temporary roof; the removal of tons of fire-debris, together with the painstaking; recovery from this of damaged historic collections and fragments of architectural schemes.

More recently, the surviving house has been carefully surveyed and analysed by leading specialists in areas such as historic plasterwork, brick and stone. All this work feeds into working up our detailed repair and conservation plans.

There have been other quieter, but still important, victories to celebrate too. In the last two years our dedicated curatorial team has undertaken a complete initial condition and conservation assessment of all the collection items and furnishings saved by the fire service or salvaged from the debris.

They have also produced a detailed conservation plan for Clandon, the first time a complete history of the house, gardens and wider parkland (the latter owned by the Onslow family) has been drawn together.

Conservators cleaning the State Bed at the Marble Hall at Clandon Park, Surrey
Conservators cleaning the State Bed at the Marble Hall at Clandon Park, Surrey
Conservators cleaning the State Bed at the Marble Hall at Clandon Park, Surrey

Simultaneously, since late-2018 when we assembled a full design team, we have been working behind-the-scenes to develop a complete architectural scheme for Clandon. Our original competition brief asked entrants to adopt a blended scheme that carefully balanced conservation, restoration and adaptation, rather than a full restoration, which was out of the question due to the extent of the fire damage. 

Since then, we’ve been testing and developing our concepts, looking for the right balance, in light of our evolving and growing understanding of the house. In parallel to developing this scheme we have been testing whether it can be practically achieved. Naturally, as we learn more about the house, these concepts are shifting, but our core aim remains the same: to shape an approach that is respectful of and honest to Clandon’s development and significance as a house; and which is inspiring and sustainable for future generations.

We’ll be sharing more on the house’s developing design scheme with you as soon as we are able to. Following this, once we’re happy we have a design scheme that offers an appropriate and sustainable future for the house and the people who will use it, the next phase will involve working with our partners to secure planning consents.

Essential conservation and repairs in 2021

Inevitably, the coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact, as it has upon the Trust and all of us as families and individuals. Most project work, except the essential maintenance of the house (a big job in itself) had to be paused for much of 2020 and the house was sadly closed to visitors. 

Happily, we were able to restart our work in January, and with all the new understanding we have about the house, we are now able to begin the next crucial phase: the conservation and repair of its outer walls and external features.  

In 2021, we will be working closely with our partners to plan this major programme of conservation, which is likely to take two years. Subject to planning consents, this exciting conservation work will focus on the house’s core brick and stone structure and will include:

  • Conservation and repairs to the house’s tall brick and stone chimney stacks, all of which miraculously survived the fire, but require considerable repair and consolidation.
  • Conservation and repairs to the stone balustrade, much of which was damaged or loosened by the fire.
  • Conservation and repairs to the damaged brickwork: a combination of core structural repairs and detailed craftsmanship, conserving the very finely finished brickwork that contributes so much to Clandon’s architectural character.

We’ll be sharing stories from this conservation work as we get started, so keep your eyes on our social channels for lots more on this. 


Experience Clandon for yourself

A visit to Clandon today – although very different from a normal country house – is magical and memorable in different ways. Indeed, once you’ve had the chance to encounter the dramatic spaces opened up by the fire and the layers of history revealed by it, I don’t think you’ll  ever look at another stately home in the same way again.

Making sure our members and supporters could still visit the house and see it in its post-fire state for themselves has been really important to us since the beginning. From 2016, just months after the fire, we offered access to the fire damaged house, enabling more and more year on year. The surrounding gardens also continue to be open and enjoyed by our local community.

After the house fell silent in 2020, we are delighted to be able to welcome people back to Clandon this year. We’re celebrating by creating a brand-new tour of the house, which will focus on the layers revealed by the fire, and the many hands who made it, led by our wonderful and dedicated volunteers. The tours will start in May and run every weekend throughout the summer. 

If you can’t visit in person, or can’t wait for more, we’ve made this virtual tour to offer a snapshot of the house today:

To each of you reading this, I’d like to thank you for your ongoing interest and support. It is inspiring to lead a team so committed to caring for Clandon and to finding ways to give new life to the house; and, as we do so, it is always with you and future generations of Trust members in mind. I look forward to continuing to share our work and discoveries with you all in due course. 

Clandon Park after the fire

Clandon Park

Discover our work to conserve and share the story of a great house laid bare by a tragic fire

View from above down into Clandon Park following the fire

Clandon Park appeal 

If you'd like to help the restoration of Clandon Park, please donate today.