Clandon Park’s Marble Hall ceiling

The Marble Hall at Clandon Park following the fire

The morning after the fire brought with it an awful shock. Where there should have been a roof, where there should have been fine ceilings made of hand crafted Italian plaster, I could see only blue. The jarring sight of the sky through Clandon’s empty window frames brought the reality of what could be lost thumping home. A truly horrible feeling.

‘A most noble and elegant Hall’ 

The Marble Hall was one of the most dramatic entrance halls in England, the masterpiece of Venetian architect and Palladio devotee Giacomo Leoni. Designed to impress, this gleaming white forty-foot cube was an awe-inspiring introduction to the Onslow family. 
 
The expanse of marble floor was surrounded by stately columned walls with grand doors, which could be opened in welcome, or remain firmly shut, literally keeping visitors in their place. Above it all, suspended from the rafters by giant iron nails, was the extraordinarily elaborate plaster ceiling crammed with Baroque decoration. 
The extraordinary and elaborate stucco ceiling before the fire
Marble Hall ceiling at Clandon Park before the fire

The central circular relief depicted Hercules and Omphale, a humorous tale of male and female role reversal from Greek and Roman mythology. Well-read guests would have smiled at the idea of the butch Hercules being enslaved to Omphale, Queen of Lydia. Omphale held Hercules’ olive-wood club and wore his lion-skin, whilst the hero sat at her feet playing a tambourine for her entertainment. It demonstrated perhaps the great confidence that Thomas Onslow and his wife Elizabeth had in their relationship, and it might be a reference to the huge wealth that Elizabeth brought to the marriage, which paid for this new house. Some of Elizabeth’s wealth came from the profits of slavery, and this was referenced above the principal doors where marble busts of black slaves looked up to the ceiling.
 
Our heroes were surrounded by four female figures representing the virtues of Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance, each shown with their attributes. These are just the kinds of qualities that the Onslow family would want to be seen to demonstrate in their personal and political lives. But it wasn’t all work and no play at Clandon Park. As well as a grand entrance hall the Marble Hall was used as a reception room for entertaining, both for large formal dinners and no doubt for dancing.
 
 

A European sculptor

The ceiling was designed by a stuccoist; a European sculptor who worked freehand in lime plaster. This artist was highly trained and we know that they were familiar with the work of great painters, because the central relief is a copy of a painting by the Italian artist Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). Traditionally the ceiling has been attributed to Guiseppe Artari (d.1769), a sculptor who was the head of a group of craftsmen and women; some of them family members, from the Italian Swiss border. The sculptors were largely itinerant, travelling across Europe following architects and patrons like the Onslows to work on grand houses like Clandon Park. 
A 300 year old pistachio shell discovered in a plaster fragment, courtesy of the craftsmen who created the ceiling
A pistachio shell found in a plaster fragment from the Marble Hall

 

Faces in the ash

As I took my first look into the Marble Hall with the ashes still smouldering, I could immediately see large pieces of plaster strewn amongst the debris. A life-size leg from one of the figures lay on top of the pile of charred, smoking timbers. Although bizarre and rather ghoulish, these discoveries were tremendously heartening as we realised that significant sculpture from the ceiling had survived and could be put back together like the pieces of a jigsaw. 
 
Alongside the swags and fruit, we have found a number of heads and faces, each carefully excavated from the ash and cleaned to reveal wonderfully expressive features. Each element in the ceiling was sculpted freehand. Layers of plaster were built up culminating in a fine, smooth upper layer upon which tools were used to create deeply carved facial features and tight curly locks. Both the bodies and the faces were exaggerated and oversized because the artist knew that they would be seen from 30 to 40 feet away rather than up-close and personal as we’re seeing them now. 
 
 

A closer look at the plaster

Whilst the ceiling was modelled by hand some of the repetitive patterned areas on the lower cornices would have been moulded to save time. This work was carried out by English craftsmen, who would have carved wooden moulds and then pressed wet lime plaster into them, before it was peeled out and attached to the ceiling.  
 
Visual inspections of broken plaster have revealed that whilst the plaster made by the European stuccoists is very smooth in texture, that made by the English craftsmen is coarser and has much more grit and animal hair in it. We think that the Europeans would’ve been involved in the entire process of creating the ceiling; from the design, to instructing the construction of the timber work, to mixing the plaster to modelling the figures and ornament.
Just a few of the plaster fragments from the Marble Hall ceiling collected during salvage
Plaster fragments from the Marble Hall ceiling collected during salvage

We’re continuing to learn more about the plaster through our salvage work. Every piece that we discover in the ash is carefully excavated and removed to our salvage village for assessment and sorting. If plaster can be used for the reinstatement or it informs us in some way, it’s cleaned and transferred to a secure store offsite.
 
 

Recreating a masterpiece

We have thousands of plaster fragments from the Marble Hall and from the other significant plaster ceilings in the house and we’re gradually able to assess what has survived. With the help of artists and craftspeople of today, there is certainly enough of the wonderful historic sculpture to reconstruct these beautiful, ornate ceilings so that we’ll be able to warmly welcome visitors back to Clandon Park.
Video

The Marble Hall ceiling

Suspended from the rafters above the Marble Hall, was the elaborate plaster ceiling attributed to noted stuccoist Guiseppe Artari. Sophie Chessum talks about our salvage work during which we’ve discovered thousands of plaster fragments enabling us to one day reconstruct them.