Uncovering layers of history at Clandon Park

The Speakers' Parlour before the fire at Clandon Park, Surrey

The Speakers’ Parlour was the only room at Clandon Park to survive the fire intact. Flames were kept at bay and many objects were rescued, although some, like the ornate picture frames and historic wallpaper, had to be left to their fate. Apart from tiny fragments, the historic wallpaper here was the only one to survive. Conservators have now carefully removed it for cleaning and closer inspection by Project Curator Sophie Chessum has resulted in some interesting discoveries.

The Speakers’ Parlour was the Onslow family’s dining room and celebrated the unique achievement of the 3 Onslow Speakers of the House of Commons, with their portraits hung in enormous gilded frames. 

Sometimes overlooked was the distinctive yellow wallpaper named ‘Earl of Onslow’ by Sanderson & Son, who produced it in about 1909. The leaf and pomegranate pattern was based on an historic flock design found in a first floor room and dating to the 1730s when Clandon was first built. 

Based on an historic flock design featuring leaves and pomegranates, this top layer of yellow Sanderson & Son paper has been carefully removed by conservators
The top layer of yellow wallpaper named 'Earl of Onslow' from the Speakers' Parlour at Clandon Park
Based on an historic flock design featuring leaves and pomegranates, this top layer of yellow Sanderson & Son paper has been carefully removed by conservators

Dating the wallpaper

Originally the Speakers’ Parlour had painted panelled walls. Modernising the room in the later 1700s, a hessian layer called a scrim was nailed over the panelling to make a flat surface onto which wallpaper could then be pasted and painted.

The distinctive yellow colour of this wallpaper helps to confirm its date. The dirt produced by lighting and heating rooms with candles, gas lamps and open fires meant that yellow would soon have become discoloured. It was not a colour commonly used in interior decoration until clean electric light and central heating systems made it possible in the late 1800s. The Onslow family were wallpapering an important room in their family’s history with a fashionable version of a traditional pattern.

Conservation in action

Removing the yellow wallpaper following the fire was an incredibly delicate task, but it revealed a wealth of information about the Onslow family’s previous decorating campaigns. 

Once the gilded wood fillet hiding the nails was removed, the wallpaper and hessian backing could be cut down in huge sheets and work began to remove surface dirt and dry the paper. Smoke sponges, made from vulcanised rubber which picks up particles from the paper’s surface, were used to gently clean and remove dirt. The scrim backing was then removed to allow the paper to dry more effectively. 

Removal of the scrim backing from the large, multi-layered wallpaper panels, allowing them to dry more effectively
Removal of the scrim backing from wallpaper panels in the Speakers' Parlour at Clandon Park, Surrey
Removal of the scrim backing from the large, multi-layered wallpaper panels, allowing them to dry more effectively

After specialist air-drying had been completed and the wallpaper was safe to handle, it was time to investigate each sheet to see if they were holding any secrets. To our surprise a total of 3 previously unknown layers of wallpaper have now been discovered, some of which haven’t been seen for hundreds of years. 

Exposing the layers of history

Immediately beneath the surface paper was another yellow-coloured layer. Archival research has identified this as a pattern called ‘Genoese’, designed in 1877 by George Gilbert Scott II and manufactured by Watts & Co. 

Under this was the green paper we already knew about which could be seen behind portraits of the Onslow Speakers. Decorators in years gone by had worked around the heavy picture frames rather than taking them down and papering where no one would ever see. The design has sprigs of flowers contained within an arch and has yet to be identified. Probably hung in about 1870 this paper, like the others pasted on top, would have been machine-printed on to long rolls of wood-pulp, as wallpaper is today.

The layer of 'Genoese' wallpaper not seen for a hundred years, designed in 1877 by George Gilbert Scott II
The layer of 'Genoese' wallpaper designed in 1877 by George Gilbert Scott II from the Speakers' Parlour at Clandon Park, Surrey
The layer of 'Genoese' wallpaper not seen for a hundred years, designed in 1877 by George Gilbert Scott II

The greatest surprise was not one, but two more layers of painted paper beneath the green. These were not wallpapers sold as long rolls as we know them today, but small sheets (equivalent to about A3 size) which were pasted on to the stretched hessian scrim. 

These sheets of high-quality paper made with finely chopped rags were painted to give a flat, uniform appearance, in this case in a light grey-mauve. The colour was clearly popular with the family, as the room was redecorated in the same tones - probably first in the later 1700s and later in the early 1800s; most likely when the room was made-over to celebrate the Onslow earldom in 1801.

What next?

We’re beginning to understand more about some of the earlier decorative schemes in the Speakers’ Parlour and how the decoration in the house changed over the centuries according to use, taste and finances. 

It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to put the fragile top layer of wallpaper back into the room in the same way that it previously hung. Our research in the Speakers’ Parlour leaves us with another tantalising question: which of the five historic schemes, from different periods of history, is the most suitable to showcase for the Clandon Park of the future?