Rescuing the State Bed from Clandon Park

Archaeologists at work in the State Bedroom

I caught my first glimpse of the State Bed the morning after the fire through a broken window frame. Ever since, the safe removal of this wonderful object from the house has been one of our most pressing goals. It’s been agonising waiting for the State Bedroom to be made safe and to be cleared, but now we've achieved our aim of rescuing the bed from the rubble.

Clearing the State Bedroom has been an extraordinarily difficult task. Seeing the change from a room piled eight foot deep in timber and rubble to reveal the floorboards has been staggering. Knowing that much of Clandon Park’s precious porcelain collection was displayed in the room above meant that archaeologists have trowelled attentively through the ash as they progressed to release the state bed.
 
 

A storied past 

The State Bedroom was the highest status room in 18th century aristocratic houses. This ground floor room imitated Royal Palaces, where only the closest Royal aides could enter this very personal space of the King or Queen.  
 
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. At Clandon Park we know that George I, George II and his son Frederick, Prince of Wales all visited which was an immense honour.  
The State Bed before the fire, made around 1710 for the original Tudor house
Clandon Park's State Bed before the fire

The Clandon state bed, and a suite of chairs and window curtains to match, was made around 1710 and would have had pride of place in the Tudor house which stood here until replaced in the 1720s. With highly worked silk embroidery, the bed would have been enormously costly and the most expensive object in the house. The bed represented the high status of the Onslow family and came to be a reminder of their royal connections. So precious, it was cared for long after it fell out of use. 
 
The National Trust had just conserved the bed curtains and so mercifully the firemen had been able to snatch these from the room in their boxes. I remember standing on the lawn watching in horror whilst this wonderful bed was surrounded by flames, convinced that I would never see it again.

 

Best laid plans

Walking round with a fireman the next morning I couldn’t have been more surprised to see the state bed still standing amongst the fallen timbers and charred panelling. Damaged and in some places badly damaged, but surviving, which is remarkable.
The morning after the fire, the State Bed glimpsed through broken windows
A glimpse of the State Bed through broken windows

We’ve been anxious to reach it ever since that morning, but it just hasn’t been possible until now. Clearance at high level was the first priority so that the archaeologists could work safely to remove the debris. As they gradually cleared the room, we could get closer and closer to assess the bed and then work together to plan its removal.
 
 

Dismantling a masterpiece

Finally the day arrived. Slowly but surely we began to dismantle the bed, untangling the fallen silk trimmings and braid called ‘passementerie’ and removing the embroidered valances that had collapsed; part on the floor, part on the bed. We all worked together, with archaeologists stepping in to excavate the last of the rubble to ease the bed, and its lower valances, free. The canopy that was suspended above the bed, the ‘tester’, had been knocked down and shattered by the falling ceiling, was carefully carried out.  
Reaching the State Bed was impossible until salvage work allowed us a path through the debris
The State Bed before room clearance began

Removing the precious textiles revealed that the horse-hair stuffed mattress beneath was past saving. Still sodden from the fire hoses, we could smell it despite wearing face masks. A modern divan beneath could be dealt with more robustly: two of us shared the satisfaction of cutting it with a knife before disposing of it. 
 
To our delight this exposed the original base-cloth, still intact, which once supported the bed’s three mattresses. These coarse woven base-cloths were often discarded, but here it was, still tied to the frame with its original strings; the very strings that could be adjusted for comfort giving rise to the expression ‘sleep-tight sweet dreams’.
 
This left the bare frame. Made 300 years ago, it came apart exactly as designed. With a bit of encouragement, we simply unscrewed the foot long bolts that joined the sections together. This was no accident, the bed was constructed with dismantling in mind so that it could be taken apart, moved and reassembled with the minimum of fuss.
As the room was cleared we could plan our approach
Archaeologists at work in the State Bedroom

The last task of the day was the toughest, perhaps because our adrenalin was waning and we were becoming tired: the removal of the header. An enormous decorative headboard, still resplendent in yellow silk with crimson tufted braid and ribbons, it took everyone on the team to lift it to safety.
 
 

Restoration and repair

This very special bed is now laid out in a large, well ventilated space. Once dry we can assess the condition of each piece alongside specialist furniture and textile conservators. The challenge will then be to decide on the most appropriate treatment so we can begin to plan a future for the bed.
All the elements of the bed laid out to air dry in the Marble Hall
The dismantled Clandon Park State Bed

It’s an enormous relief and a great joy to have successfully retrieved this iconic part of Clandon Park’s history and, combined with the perfectly restored set of curtains saved on the night of the fire, we’re tremendously hopeful for its future reinstatement.
Video

Rescuing the State Bed

Hear from Project Curator Sophie Chessum about Clandon Park's wonderful State Bed. Get an insight into an extraordinary day on site dismantling and removing the bed, one of the most complicated operations undertaken during our salvage work.