A Curator’s experience of the Clandon Park fire

The fire damaged Marble Hall

Like so many, I arrived to help on the night of the fire, part of the huge emergency salvage operation. Now, unexpectedly, I find myself still here and helping to plan the project.

It was a grim experience for so many of us to have to stand by and watch the destruction of Clandon Park. A place that was at once a home, an architectural masterpiece, a museum full of remarkable artefacts, and an extraordinary workplace.

The night of the fire

The ability of the fire to consume, so quickly and completely, the artistry and craft skills of centuries was both terrifying and astounding. My memories from that night are of contrasting noises; not just of fire, breaking glass and falling debris, but the din of engines, hoses, generators, voices, and inevitably mobile phones. 
With no electricity, by nightfall the entire site was plunged into darkness save for flames glowing from inside the house. On the west side the air was cold and dewy; on the east filled with smoke and ash that became ingrained in our hair, our clothes and laid a film of filth over our cars. 

A new day

Having raged for much of the night, the fire was largely out by mid-day. A close inspection of the house revealed remarkable discoveries. I walked through the front door towards a smoking mass of charred timbers that was once the Marble Hall, where I saw the superb carved marble overmantels by genius sculptor John Michael Rysbrack untouched. 
Carved marble overmantel by Rysbrack
Fireplace in the Marble Hall
Carved marble overmantel by Rysbrack

Such joyful moments amid the horror have sustained my optimism through all our subsequent challenges. I once cursed the dry-rot treatment of our predecessors, but now find myself thankful that wooden lintels were replaced with concrete, preventing further destruction.
That no one was hurt and that so many items were rescued are thanks to the dedication of Surrey Fire and Rescue Service, supported by a comprehensive salvage plan and our staff and volunteers. Since then the response of colleagues from other organisations has been generous, with many offers of advice, help and practical assistance.

Work begins again

This has been a period of intense activity involving all areas of the National Trust. The salvaged collection of over 400 items, including paintings, clocks, porcelain, silver, books and furniture, is now safeguarded, transferred to a secure store where objects can be assessed and receive treatment. 
We’re working with structural engineers to assess the stability of a house that was, fortunately, designed by Italian architect Giacomo Leoni with a generous specification and is reassuringly solid. May saw the exterior of the house surveyed using 3-D laser, and this will continue inside when the rooms are cleared. A time-lapse camera has been capturing activity on site and we’ve been making use of a drone to look down into the building.

Two huge cranes have been working since June to remove precarious timbers, bricks, windows, collapsed steels and the grotesque layer of tangled metal to enable ground-level access to the structure. A specialist self-supporting scaffold was designed to wrap and roof this huge four storey house; this is on course to finish before Christmas. We’re patiently waiting for archaeologists to begin the careful removal of the debris, the search for artefacts and the subsequent cleaning, assessment and treatment of these longed-for discoveries. 
A small salvage village has been constructed temporarily onsite so that we can accommodate offices, staff welfare, and storage materials and equipment. And, of course, we couldn’t do without electricity, water, Wi-Fi, and waste management. All this and much more has been researched, discussed, recorded and scheduled. 
Some of us have slowly become accustomed to the stark bare-brick appearance of this new Clandon, but we know that this is just a passing phase. Decay is inevitable if it’s not stopped; something that we’re focussed on preventing.

The morning after the fire

See the aftermath of the fire on the morning of 30 April, featuring interviews with Roger Childs of Surrey Fire and Rescue Service and Helen Ghosh, our former Director-General.


The night of the fire

See footage taken from the east side of Clandon Park on the night of the fire at the height of the blaze. Extensive damage was caused leaving the house virtually a shell.