Marble Hall fireplaces survive at Clandon Park

Salvage experts at work in the Marble Hall

A close inspection of the house with the Surrey Fire and Rescue Commander the day after the fire revealed remarkable things. I walked through an untouched front door towards the smoking mass of charred timbers fallen like a giant set of pick-up sticks.

Amongst the remains of the Marble Hall I was taken aback by the sight of the superb carved marble overmantels by the genius Flemish sculptor John Michael Rysbrack. A joyous moment amid the horror, seeing these beautiful carvings untouched has sustained my optimism through all our subsequent challenges. 
 
 

Rysbrack

Rysbrack, from a family of well-known Flemish artists, was born in Antwerp in 1694. His father Pieter had worked in England from 1675 until, as a Roman Catholic, he fled after the discovery of the Titus Oates plot. Rysbrack junior trained in his home city before coming to England with his brother Pieter Andreas around 1720. 
John Michael Rysbrack
A portrait of John Michael Rysbrack
John Michael Rysbrack

He settled in London, starting out by carving monuments under architect James Gibbs. His skill and a lack of native competition meant that Rysbrack was quickly able to establish himself, becoming a sought after artist amongst the great patrons of the day, including Thomas, 2nd Baron Onslow who built Clandon Park in the 1720s.
 
Rysbrack was prolific and carved the imposing monument to Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey, as well as a bust of Britain’s first Prime Minister and political ally of the Onslow family, Sir Robert Walpole. Some forty years later, George, 1st Earl of Onslow followed in his cousin Thomas’ footsteps and commissioned Rysbrack to design a monument to his own father, Arthur, the Great Speaker Onslow, which can be seen in Holy Trinity, Guildford.
 
 

The Clandon overmantels 

Rysbrack carved the overmantel reliefs in the Marble Hall in the late 1720s and was probably also responsible for the associated chimneypieces and framework around the two fireplaces. The use of dark grey marble as a background is a subtle touch adding depth and drawing attention to the reliefs. 
The south fireplace dedicated to Diana
The south fireplace in the Marble Hall after the fire
The south fireplace dedicated to Diana

Depicting scenes of hunting and sacrifice, the reliefs emphasize the theme of generous hospitality, in keeping with the Marble Hall’s principle role as a jaw-dropping entrance hall in which guests were welcomed and entertained. The southern relief, which is signed by the artist, is dedicated to Diana, goddess of the hunt in Roman mythology, and features her attributes of hunting horns and a boar’s head. The northern chimneypiece depicts Bacchus, Roman god of wine and shows garlands with vine leaves and grapes. 
 
 

A lucky escape

Both these outstanding sculptures clearly had a lucky escape during the fire, but none more so than that northern relief. The fragile carved detail was spared, despite two enormous roof timbers coming to rest either side of the carvings. Ten centimetres either way, and the figure carrying the axe would have been smashed to pieces.
The northern relief narrowly escaped damage
An overmantel surrounded by charred timbers
The northern relief narrowly escaped damage

You can see more of the artist’s work in the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe. At Stourhead a terracotta plaque, which Henry II Hoare bought at a sale of the sculptors’ own collection in 1767, relates to the Clandon overmantel.
 
Seeing the beauty of Rysbrack’s carvings, more than 250 years after the artist placed them there is an inspiration to me. I would not want to see them anywhere else but in the Marble Hall, and I look forward to them welcoming visitors again.
Video

More on the fireplaces

Hear more from our Project Curator about this remarkable discovery in the aftermath of the fire, the survival of the Rysbrack marble fireplaces. These fragile carvings were spared following a narrow escape from two enormous falling roof timbers.