Connecting with our past through brickwork conservation

Emma Simpson, the expert conservation bricklayer working with the National Trust on the Clandon Park project

Meet Emma Simpson, the expert conservation bricklayer working with the National Trust on the Clandon Park project. She is helping us with a major programme of essential conservation and repairs which will last over two years. Using craft techniques rarely seen today, the repairs will help to preserve the fire-damaged structure for generations to come.

This is the first major conservation work to take place since the fire following the years of debris clearance, research and investigation and ongoing essential maintenance.

The fire in 2015 destroyed much of Clandon’s elaborate interiors. While the main walls survived relatively unscathed, it caused movement and fractures to the brick and stonework which make up the house’s skeleton.

A small team of expert brick and stone conservators have set to work investigating the most sensitive way to repair damage in the surviving external walls, chimney stacks and balustrade.
In the first phase this will focus mainly on an area in the south-east corner of the house. 

Emma working on the window arches at Clandon Park
Emma Simpson, the expert conservation bricklayer working with the National Trust on the Clandon Park project
Emma working on the window arches at Clandon Park

Thousands of new bricks will be made by traditional family brickmakers over two years which carefully match the colour and texture of those made by local brickmakers 300 years ago. Repairing this damage is a crucial step in the National Trust’s long-term project to bring the house back to life.

National Trust Senior Project Manager, Stephen Castle, is collaborating with conservation experts like Emma to plan these repairs. These must be completed before any future construction work can happen. 

Emma discovered her passion for bricklaying when she took a building course in London in her early 20s, after her English Literature degree. The process of repairing a building and putting it back into good order instantly captivated her. Since then she’s worked at some of the UK’s most notable historic places, including Hampton Court and Kensington Palace.

Tools of the trade
Conservation bricklaying at Clandon Park
Tools of the trade

Conservation bricklaying is an intricate process, where historic brickwork is assessed and recorded, before being carefully conserved. Work can range from simple repointing of the joints in lime mortar to rebuilding damaged areas of brickwork and replacing bricks that are beyond repair.

To Emma it’s about far more than function alone; it’s a way to connect with people who came before us. ‘We’re immensely thrilled when we find something from an earlier bricklayer. Last week I found some etched graffiti at Clandon from 1743.’ she says. ‘Working on a lovely building like Clandon, you feel a responsibility to the people who built it.’

" I fall in love with each job I do. Each building has something to teach us, and often there’s no written record of how a place was made, so what we see in front of us is our only resource."
- Emma Simpson, Conservation bricklayer

The intangible way these techniques are transferred is both magical and fragile. Many of the traditional craft skills are no longer being taught and so are at risk of dying out. Emma also teaches at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), where she works with the next generation of conservation bricklayers to pass on her knowledge. 

Wherever possible, Emma will complete repairs in a way which allows as much of the historic brickwork to be retained as possible, but sometimes replacements are required. Great brickwork is dependent on the bricks themselves. At Clandon, Emma and the National Trust team are working with family brickmakers The Bulmer Brick & Tile Company. They’re a traditional family business who have been making handmade bricks in Suffolk for over 80 years, continuing traditions dating back to the Middle Ages.

Etched graffiti in the historic brickwork
Initials and numbers in the brickwork at Clandon Park, Surrey
Etched graffiti in the historic brickwork

‘You can’t rush creating the bricks,’ Emma explains. ‘There is huge variety in texture, colour, shape and size, and if they’re wrong, the whole thing is off. At Clandon, the brickwork is incredibly special, and in remarkable condition considering it’s over 300 years old. The quality of the bricks and how the building was made is exceptional, and it’s a great joy to be working here with the National Trust to do the building proud.’

When work begins, we hope to be able to offer chances for visitors to come and meet the people working on the conservation, and to see some of the techniques involved. Keep an eye on our homepage for more information.