Secrets of the Library at Clandon Park

The Library at Clandon Park

Part of the suite of State Rooms that you might expect to find in any imposing historic house of the period, the Library at Clandon Park has recently joined our list of rooms cleared of debris. Like the adjoining State Bedroom and the Marble Hall, it survived the fire with important features still intact and one or two secrets to share.

A library to be read

The Library at Clandon was not just a safe place to keep and organise expensive books, but a place of contemplation, study and inspiration. In the 1780s, the Greek role models cast in plaster above the fireplace were joined by portraits of British literary giants, including Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and Dryden and historical figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh. Pride of place was reserved above the chimney piece for a portrait of Arthur Onslow, the Great Speaker of the House of Commons, a position he held for a record-breaking  33 years. 
The Library at Clandon Park before the fire
The Library at Clandon Park in Surrey
The Library at Clandon Park before the fire

The Onslow’s library was small by aristocratic standards. Nevertheless the books kept here were like a window on the family’s literary taste and interests; the classics, country pursuits and political procedures, the history of battles and some, but not too many, religious books. The 4th Earl and Countess travelled widely, so there are plenty of Baedeker guides. Their deeper interest in other cultures is reflected, particularly their time in New Zealand where the 4th Earl was Governor in the late 1880s, through books on Maori culture. The 5th Earl’s interest in caged birds is represented, and it's difficult not to be disproportionately intrigued by Nudity in Modern Life, Among the Nudists, or indeed The Sexual Life of Savages in north-Western Malanesia, all of the 1920s.
Sadly, much of the renowned library of the Great Speaker was dispersed in 1885, to the great irritation of the 4th Earl, who did his best to buy them back. However, some 18th century books survived, including a 1734 edition of the Koran.
Plaster casts of Greek thinkers still add a scholarly air
Plasterwork in the Library at Clandon Park
Plaster casts of Greek thinkers still add a scholarly air


Secret spaces

The library also kept one or two secrets. On the interior wall was a hidden doorway, cleverly housed among the bookcases and disguised from view by false book spines. Whilst it might sound like a plot device from the pages of a mystery novel not fit for these shelves, actually this doorway and the passageway it concealed served a practical purpose. Leading via the harness lobby used to store horse tack, to the stone staircase that ran all the way from the basement kitchen up to the first floor landing, this passageway provided discreet access to the State Rooms for the ‘below stairs’ members of the household. Further along the same wall, again hidden behind false books, was the 4th Earl’s safe, which was a relatively new response to the perception of the risk of theft prevalent at the time.
The 4th Earl’s safe hidden in the bookcase
The safe and books in the Library at Clandon
The 4th Earl’s safe hidden in the bookcase


Current conditions

The fate of the library has been a tale of two very different halves. One side of the room was substantially damaged and here the ceiling and floor collapsed into the basement below. Yet turn around and on the other side of the room the fine fireplace and decorative plaster survives. The hand sculpted plaster owl above the now smashed oval pier glass mirror and the two portrait medallions of the Greek thinkers Homer and Sophocles above the chimneypiece, survive as representations of wisdom and learning. 
During the fire, many books fell from their shelves and were consumed by the flames but others remain, locked together and fused by the intense heat and water. The best preserved volumes have been sealed in bags and placed in a deep freezer, giving us time to assess their condition and significance before further deterioration sets in. If any volumes can be saved, they can then be dried out in controlled conditions and considered for further treatment.
Some of the books remained on their shelves and have survived
Books remaining on the shelves in the Library
Some of the books remained on their shelves and have survived


Rescued on the night of the fire

Some of the most precious items from the Library were rescued on the night of the fire including ‘View of the House of Commons’, the painting of Speaker Arthur Onslow and Sir Robert Walpole, by Thornhill and Hogarth (1730). Remarkably firefighters saved the painting by easing it out of its frame using a crowbar which was later found on the floor under piles of debris by the archaeologists exactly where it had been abandoned. The Great Speaker’s armorial bookplate could be found in some of the early volumes; exceptional in having been designed by the eminent architect William Kent, the copper plate was kept in the Speakers’ Parlour and was rescued undamaged.
Some of the most significant books were also rescued, including a 1716 edition of the Bible printed by John Basket, known as a ‘vinegar’ bible because of a typographical error. Particularly poignant for me as we commemorate the centenary of the First World War is the survival of the manuscript which lists the names of servicemen who were patients at Clandon Park when the house was used as a hospital. The library adjoins the room which was converted into an operating theatre where 747 operations were carried out.

Look into the Library

Take a look around inside the Library at Clandon Park for the first time since the fire. Project Curator Sophie Chessum tells us more about a room that's very much a tale of two halves, and points out some of the most important surviving features.