Clandon Park: the house you knew before the fire

The south front and parterre at Clandon Park before the fire

Clandon Park was one of the country’s most complete examples of a Palladian mansion. Built by a Venetian architect for the Onslow family in the 1720s, the house featured magnificent interiors with original stucco ceilings and marble fireplaces. Given to us in 1956, the house was re-presented in the late 1960s by interior designer John Fowler, to showcase a superb collection of 18th century furniture, porcelain and textiles.

Palladian architecture

Andrea Palladio was an innovative architect of the 16th century, arguably the most influential individual in the history of architecture. He was heavily influenced by Greek and Roman buildings and his designs were so popular they travelled across the world inspiring new generations of architects including up to the present day.
Palladian principles at work at Clandon
The house at Clandon Park, Surrey
Palladian principles at work at Clandon

Clandon is a typical example of English Palladianism. Designed by Giacomo Leoni in the 1720s it follows many of Palladio’s rules and formulae. Leoni arrived in England aged 28; he’d just rebuilt Lyme Park and was invited to do the same at Clandon by Thomas, 2nd Lord Onslow. The Tudor mansion that once stood here was demolished to make way for the Palladian house you see today.
Palladio tried to imitate nature, believing that this led to perfection. Proportions were of great importance to him and he believed that the parts of a building should sit harmoniously together. At Clandon these proportions feature heavily with the house itself a Palladian rectangle, its length is twice the height and one and a half times the width. The house has featured a room named in Palladio’s honour since at least 1747.

The State Rooms

State Rooms were a feature that you might expect to find in any imposing historic house of the period; grand rooms that were lavishly decorated.
The Marble Hall was one of the most dramatic entrance halls in England and Leoni’s masterpiece. Designed to impress, this gleaming white forty-foot cube was a jaw-dropping introduction for guests important enough to enter through the entrance doors. This impressive space together with the Saloon next door, offered guests an amazing space for dinner and dancing, with glorious views of the garden and parkland beyond. An expanse of marble floor was surrounded by stately columned walls with grand doors and above it all, suspended from massive timbers and giant iron nails, was the extraordinarily elaborate stucco ceiling by master craftsmen from the Italian-Swiss border, attributed to Guiseppe Artari.
The Marble Hall, Leoni's Palladian masterpiece
The Marble Hall at Clandon Park
The Marble Hall, Leoni's Palladian masterpiece

Imitating Royal Palaces, the State Bedroom was a high status room in 18th century aristocratic houses. The focus of the room was the State Bed itself. Rarely slept in, these beds were commissioned to mark a significant family event or in anticipation of a royal visit. The Clandon bed was made around 1710 and would’ve had pride of place in the original Tudor house. With highly worked silk embroidery it was enormously costly - the most expensive object in the house. It was iconic and emblematic of the Onslow family and a reminder of the honoured visits they had received from George I and George II.
One of the most storied rooms in the house, the Speakers' Parlour was a celebration of parliamentary achievement and this important family's pride in their ancestry. The Onslow family are unique in providing three Speakers for the House of Commons over the centuries, each presiding over House debates and maintaining order. These men have been celebrated in the Speakers' Parlour since 1801 when the new Earl redecorated this room to celebrate the Onslow earldom. It remained themed around the Speakers and much of their memorabilia could be seen here right up until the fire in 2015.

Clandon Park in public service

In addition to a family home Clandon has also fulfilled other roles. During the First World War the house was used as a military hospital with the Countess of Onslow in charge. The 4th Earl of Onslow’s dressing room became an operating theatre and other ground floor rooms, including the Marble Hall became wards for convalescing soldiers.
Lady Onslow with hospital patients at Clandon Park
Lady Onslow with hospital patients
Lady Onslow with hospital patients at Clandon Park

In the Second World War the house returned to its role supporting the war effort by providing a safe haven from the Blitz for the then London-based Public Record Office. The Onslow family moved out to make way for Public Record Office staff who lived in the house for the duration of the war. Lorries delivered thousands of boxes of precious documents which were stored in many rooms in the house, including towering piles in the Marble Hall.
Once hostilities had ended, the 6th Earl of Onslow returned from Europe where he had been a prisoner of war, urged the Public Record Office to decamp, and re-occupied the house with his wife Pamela and young family.

Mrs Gubbay

Mrs Hannah Gubbay was an influential collector of 18th century English furniture, fine porcelain, early decorative mirrors and fine needlework and tapestry. She proved to have a keen eye when choosing these treasures, further developed by her collaboration with her cousin Sir Philip Sassoon, a politician, connoisseur, collector and patron of the arts.
Mrs Gubbay never bought ‘useful’ porcelain, neither was she interested in building a set. Rather she chose individual pieces of the highest artistic and design quality which explains the wonderful eclectic mix of English, French, German and Oriental porcelain in the collection she so generously left to the National Trust. Most memorable amongst her collection of ceramics was her remarkable group of Chinese porcelain birds.
Mrs Gubbay chose individual pieces of the highest quality
Porcelain from the Gubbay collection on display at Clandon Park
Mrs Gubbay chose individual pieces of the highest quality

Mrs Gubbay was wealthy in her own right, but also benefited from the will of her cousin Sir Philip, inheriting Trent Park, a large house and estate in Enfield. In her later years, Mrs Gubbay lived in a small house on this estate. Little Trent Park was a treasure house, crammed full with her extraordinary collection, including carved mirrors so tall they touched the ceiling as they were intended for more spacious surroundings. Mrs Gubbay left her collection and a generous fund to us in 1969. National Trust curator Robin Fedden chose to display her collection at Clandon as a means of enriching the interiors.

John Fowler

John Fowler was one of the most influential interior designers of his generation. He worked in some of Britain’s most exclusive houses including Buckingham Palace and Chequers, during a career that spanned the important post-war period. From the 1950s there was a reaction against the loss of historic houses and Fowler’s work chimed with the growing interest in renewing historic houses and sharing them and their riches with a wider public. The English-Country-House-Style, often thought of as integral to English houses, was an invention that Fowler built on. Inspired by Palladian ideals it emphasised elegance and comfort.
The bequest of Mrs Gubbay in 1969 led to the appointment of Fowler to refurbish some of the state rooms at Clandon and provide advice on the display of the newly acquired collection. When generously given to the National Trust in 1956 by Gwendolen Guinness, Countess of Iveagh, the house had been in dire need of repair. Although short of funds, a large amount of money was spent on a new roof, services and ridding the house of dry rot, sadly leaving no money for redecoration.  
Fowler re-presented Clandon with spectacular interiors
The Green Drawing Room at Clandon Park
Fowler re-presented Clandon with spectacular interiors

Fowler’s primary aim was to be true to Clandon’s Georgian origins but his restoration didn’t always reflect this. An early pioneer of paint scrapes to reveal historic decorative schemes, these discoveries were sometimes incorrectly used as a basis for re-decoration. It would be wrong to judge Fowler’s work here without putting it into context. He undertook a pioneering and brave approach, transforming a house that had been white-washed and forlorn for a number of years.

The life of a country house continues

All country houses are changed over time, to one extent or another, so that they remain practical, comfortable and tasteful to the standards of their day. Clandon is no exception; built in the 1720s, the house underwent significant alteration and updating in about 1780, about 1800, about 1870 and during our ownership in the late 1950s and early 1970s. As with other significant buildings in history, the fire was a disastrous moment. After suffering such devastation many houses have been demolished, some have been left as ruins, whilst others have been repaired. The National Trust is committed to open a new chapter in the history of the house. Clandon will be repaired, restored and renewed and will continue to welcome visitors.