Project Director, Clandon Park
New to the National Trust, Kent’s role as Project Director at Clandon Park means that he oversees the restoration project as a whole. This includes conceiving what we’re doing, understanding why we’re doing it, and keeping hold of the vision of what we want to achieve.
I work on all aspects of the project, from the design process with architects Allies & Morrison, through to maintaining strong relationships with the people to whom Clandon Park matters. From formal relationships with people like Surrey County Council to members of the local community like Barnaby, our local vicar, we’re working to bring together a community of people who care about our vision for the future.
A career in heritage
I’ve worked in heritage all my life; I’m a historian by education but I’ve always particularly loved historic buildings. I began my career as an archaeologist and then studied for a doctorate in medieval history including medieval architecture.
For just under 10 years I was the Curator of Historic Buildings at Hampton Court Palace. I worked on everything from the visitor infrastructure for the palace right through to major conservation projects. Most recently, I was Deputy Director of Collections and Public Programming at the Royal Institute of British Architects, finding ways to tell stories about national and international architecture through a collection.
I’m passionate about places that are both visitor attractions and also significant cultural spaces. I want our places to be as accessible as possible, both physically but also in the audiences we invite to them and the stories we tell.
Each job has taught me to really listen and respond to what visitors want rather than assuming we already know. That’s right at the heart of what the National Trust is doing at the moment. We’re learning what these places mean to people, what they want our places to do and recognising them as social and cultural assets in a much broader way than simply learning about the past.
Discovering Clandon Park
Like most, I heard about the fire on the news. The first few times I visited, walking into the Marble Hall felt like being kicked in the stomach. There’s something incredibly visceral about it; partly it’s the shock but also a sense of being in the aftermath of something so destructive.
Equally, there’s something incredibly striking about it. The word I use a lot to describe it is ‘sublime’ which, in the mid to late 18th century, was used to describe something that was both frightening and beautiful at the same time. At that time, people were beginning to travel more to see sights like the Alps or the Grand Canyon and the term sublime was used to describe that sense of scale, the drops and the voids, as both terrifying and beautiful. Clandon, to me, feels a little like that - the interplay between its beauty and the terrifying effects of the fire is fascinating.
A remarkable project
We’re thinking about reimagining, conserving or restoring all aspects of the site. Everything, from the services that run beneath the ground to how you’ll be greeted when you arrive, is being carefully considered. That’s extraordinarily challenging because in one way we’re starting completely from scratch, but at another level it’s completely defined by what was here before.
Clandon Park is a genuinely unique place at the moment. The house was gutted by the fire but the core building, the stone and brickwork, is completely intact. That poses an important question for us; how do we recreate the most significant spaces but also leave something of the current experience for future visitors? The path to achieving that goal was announced by the National Trust in 2016’s vision statement, and it’s a really exciting one.
" We’re bringing back to life the most significant parts of the house, where there’s so much surviving fabric, in a way that isn’t pastiche because we’re conserving and restoring something that’s still there."
We’re bringing back to life the most significant parts of the house, where there’s so much surviving fabric, in a way that isn’t pastiche because we’re conserving and restoring something that’s still there. In the Marble Hall for example, you can see that the core elements such as the fireplaces, the surrounds of the windows and doors, the statuary and the proportions of the room, are all still there. Much has been lost, but so much also survives.
On the upper floors, that same approach isn’t possible because so little is left. Instead, we want to use the space in a more interesting and contemporary way, rather than take on the almost impossible task of recreation.
As an organisation we tell lots of stories about individual sites, but the newly designed spaces at Clandon Park will provide opportunities that are much wider than just the place itself. They’ll allow us to draw together strands from all of the National Trust’s sites with access to one of the largest museum collections in the country.
The project is an exciting opportunity for us to think about a new cultural venue for Surrey, the South East and the nation as a whole, focusing on stories about heritage, historic places and collections.
Looking ahead to 2019
Behind the scenes we’re continuing to work closely with the design team formed by Allies and Morrison, Purcell and Robert Myers Associates, to fine-tune our core vision and masterplan. Then, in the latter half of the year, we’re going to be able to start sharing that through a public consultation process, which is enormously exciting.
One of the most amazing things about the project has been the principle of keeping the house open, enabling us to share as much as we can about what we’re doing. This year, there’ll be another opportunity for people to visit and experience the house as it is now, an extraordinary modern ruin. But the nature of the project means that state is transitory, it won’t be that way forever. We hope that as many people as possible visit and experience it fully while they can, because that window of opportunity is closing.
A valuable experience
Working with remarkable people and a remarkable place is such a privilege, both within the National Trust and with the external team we’ve assembled. They’re all leaders in their field, all incredibly creative and knowledgeable. To some extent my role is just to focus them and point them in a particular direction and that really is a delight.
Our project will be a success if we can create somewhere that allows people to think about historic places and how those relate to their lives today in new and exciting ways. I’d like to walk around Clandon Park in 10 years’ time and see as many different kinds of people as possible having an amazing day out. Every visitor should be able to engage in their own way, each taking pleasure and delight in the building and the landscape that surrounds them.