The fire at Uppark

On the afternoon of 30th August 1989, work was nearing completion on the new roof. Uppark had been shrouded in scaffolding for more than a year, and the Trust was looking forward to the big reveal. Fate, however, was to deal a cruel blow.

It was the last day in a long schedule of works, and workmen were applying the finishing touches to the leadwork on the south side. During their tea break they noticed smoke but, unable to contain what quickly became a blaze, the fire alarms sounded at 3:36pm.

Fifteen minutes later, the first fire engine arrived, joined by another four within half an hour. At its peak, 27 fire engines and 156 firefighters from three counties tackled the blaze. Water had long been a challenge for the inhabitants of Uppark, and it proved no different for the fire service - hoses were laid as far as Harting village, but by 5pm the first floor was engulfed by flames.

Uppark House on fire 30th August 1989
Uppark House on fire 30th August 1989
Uppark House on fire 30th August 1989

The fire service's decision to concentrate on buying time to rescue the building's contents allowed human chains of staff, volunteers, and even members of the public to help carry priceless works of art, fine furniture and delicate porcelain out through the windows and away from danger.

Firefighters working inside wearing breathing apparatus prised precious landscapes out of the panelling, pulled down intricately woven curtains in one piece, and tore irreplaceable wallpaper from the walls in huge strips as last-ditch attempts to save them. Some items were even ablaze as they were carried from the building, notably the Rococo pier-glasses rescued from the Drawing Rooms.

Fragment of the Red Drawing Room wallpaper
Fragment of the Red Drawing Room wallpaper after the fire at Uppark, West Sussex in 1989
Fragment of the Red Drawing Room wallpaper

The fire's rapid progress meant that some rooms had to be abandoned, leaving their contents to the flames, while others survived long into the night. The Stone Hall's scagliola tables were consumed soon after 6:30pm, whereas the Little Parlour survived until 5am, its chandelier swinging defiantly, until a falling chimneystack carried the entire room into the basement.

Efforts to contain the fire and salvage as much as possible continued long into the night, but dawn unavoidably revealed the extent of the devastation. From above, Uppark appeared as a smouldering carcass filled with rubble, through which teams of conservators would later begin digging and sifting.

But not until the fire service had officially declared the fire out - after four and a half days of damping down.

The Saloon after the fire of 1989
Fire damage in The Saloon, taken 11 September 1989, at Uppark, West Sussex
The Saloon after the fire of 1989

Rescuing the rubble

Slag heaps of charred remains and wet sludge were carefully allocated to a grid system, before being shovelled into some 3,860 labelled dustbins. This careful cataloguing allowed even the tiniest fragments to be identified and eventually reunited, but this process carried with it a certain urgency. While Uppark's walls were still standing, they were badly in need of stabilising, a process that could only begin once the rooms were cleared.

Charred remains were stored in 3,860 dustbins to ensure even the tiniest fragments could be saved.
Uppark, West Sussex , West Sussex House, showing fire damage and scaffolding
Charred remains were stored in 3,860 dustbins to ensure even the tiniest fragments could be saved.

From the rubble emerged the occasional triumph: the Prince Regent's bed was still intact and was dismantled and passed out through the Tapestry Room's windows just before the remains of the ceiling collapsed, while the Red Drawing Room's Axminster carpet was dug out from under the rubble three days after the fire, and found to be in remarkable condition.

Deciding the future

As more than 12,000 fragments were being painstakingly plucked from the remains, opinions were forming about Uppark's future.

While some lobbied for demolition, others argued for a more modern reinterpretation. But to those working on site, it was clear more had survived than thought possible. With the Trust's insurance geared towards reinstatement, on 5th October 1989 the decision was taken to restore Uppark to its previous state "in so far as that is practicable."

That set in motion a six-year project that saw more than 4,300 architect's instructions and the contributions of more than a thousand skilled craftsmen and women who pieced together countless fragments of carved woodwork, ceiling plaster, glass and metalwork.

With the scaffolding in place, restoration work begins in earnest.
Uppark, West Sussex at dusk from the south east during restoration work following the fire of 1989
With the scaffolding in place, restoration work begins in earnest.

A faithful restoration

Given the scale of the project, work was broken down into packages and sent out for tender. Contractors were subject to careful scrutiny, with the more complex tasks awarded only after months of trials - the recreation of stucco ceilings, for instance, relied on free-hand lime modelling, a skill that had largely died out, now made more complicated by the need to incorporate thousands of rescued fragments.

Anne King, a freehand stucco plasterer, working on the Red Drawing Room ceiling.
Anne King, a freehand stucco plasterer, working on the Red Drawing Room ceiling at Uppark, West Sussex
Anne King, a freehand stucco plasterer, working on the Red Drawing Room ceiling.

The materials selected were just as important. Where oak and Delabole slate where used in the original roof, so they were used again, while chemical analysis confirmed the exact make-up of the plasterwork so that it could be faithfully reproduced.

Even the paint for the window frames was analysed so that it could be carefully colour-matched and, being a durable yet highly toxic lead-based formulation, special permission was sought so that it could be used again.

A woodcarver working on the Serpent door frame in the Saloon
A woodcarver working on the Serpent door frame in the Saloon, following the devastating fire of August 1989 at Uppark, West Sussex
A woodcarver working on the Serpent door frame in the Saloon

Help often arrived from unusual sources; only photographic evidence remained of the top floor dormer windows until a builder involved in a previous restoration telephoned to say he had an original in his store, while efforts to trace long-lost wallpaper samples turned up a match in a Parisian museum.

By October 1991 the new roof was in place, the exterior was complete by May 1992, and by the end of June 1994 the main building contract had been completed, on time and on budget. In September 1994 the contents began to return, and on 1st June 1995, Uppark finally re-opened to the public.

Restoration of the roof carved details.
Restoration of the roof after the fire in 1989 at Uppark, West Sussex
Restoration of the roof carved details.

Lasting legacy

Although undoubtedly a tragedy, positives did emerge from the project. The restoration was the largest and most ambitious project ever undertaken by the trust, and conservation staff learnt many lessons that have since proved invaluable.

" Young craftsmen and women, while listening to heavy metal rather than Mozart, recreated the missing areas of the beautiful 1750s Rococo plaster ceilings."
- Christopher Rowell, National Trust

But Uppark's legacy isn't just the restoration of a beautiful house in a spectacular setting, nor is it limited to the fine 18th century interiors and the many historically significant items in the collection, all of which can thankfully still be enjoyed today.

Perhaps Uppark's greatest legacy is in the re-learning of many a lost art, the re-acquisition of important 18th century skills that had been so easily lost to the relentless march of time.

Some details were left unpainted to show where the old and new meet.
One of the serpent capitals of the Saloon door-cases at Uppark, West Sussex
Some details were left unpainted to show where the old and new meet.