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History of Clandon Park

A view of the south front of the house and the formal garden at Clandon Park, Surrey
The south front of Clandon house | © National Trust Images / Anthony Parkinson

Before the fire in 2015, Clandon Park was one of England's most complete examples of a Palladian mansion. Designed by a Venetian architect for the Onslow family in the 1730s, the house featured original stucco ceilings and marble fireplaces. The home became a military hospital during the First World War and, in the 1960s, interior designer John Fowler helped showcase the collection of 18th-century furniture and ceramics of Hannah Gubbay.

Clandon's early history

Clandon Park has a long and rich story. Once part-owned by the crusading Knights Templar, the estate was sold to the Onslow family in 1641 on the eve of civil war in England.

The story of the Clandon Park house that we know today began in the 1720s, when the wealth and ambition of Lord Onslow demanded a new and fashionable mansion.

Georgian architecture

Built in the 1730s, Clandon was designed by the Italian architect Giacomo (also known as James) Leoni, and is a fusion of late Baroque and early English Palladianism.

Leoni arrived in England when he was 28. He'd just altered Lyme Park in Cheshire when he was brought to Clandon by Thomas, 2nd Lord Onslow to demolish his family’s existing grand house and build a new one.

What's Palladianism?

Palladianism was a hugely popular architectural style named after its creator, the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. His designs were so admired that they inspired new generations of architects, such as Leoni, who was the first person to publish his works in English.

Palladio’s work was heavily influenced by Greek and Roman buildings. Proportions were important to him and he believed that all parts of a building should sit harmoniously.

A view of the fireplace and surrounding wall detail inside the Marble Hall at Clandon Park, Surrey before the fire in 2015
The Marble Hall before the 2015 fire | © National Trust Images / Anthony Parkinson Restrictions

Designed to impress

Clandon house was built with a suite of grand ground floor rooms, designed to impress and showcase the family’s wealth and status. The Marble Hall at Clandon was one of the country’s most dramatic entrance halls and Leoni’s masterpiece.

This gleaming white, double-height, 12-metre cube was intended to astound important guests as they came into the entrance. Together with the nearby Saloon, the hall offered guests a space for dinner and dancing, all while admiring views of the garden and parkland beyond.

The Marble Hall's ceiling

With a vast marble floor surrounded by stately columned walls and chimneypieces by Rysbrack, the most jaw dropping aspect of the Marble Hall was its grand and elaborate stucco ceiling.

This was designed and made by travelling master craftsmen from the Italian-Swiss border, who hand-moulded intricate figures and embellishments from lime plaster.

Specifically attributed to the artist Giuseppe Artari, the ceiling contained a central circular relief depicting Hercules and Omphale. They, in turn, were surrounded by a baroque explosion of figures, scrolls, swags, masks and dangling limbs.

Marble busts and changing fashion

Two marble busts also looked out onto this room. One of these busts represents an enslaved African. This is believed to be a conscious reference to Thomas and Elizabeth Onslow’s associations with the transatlantic slave trade, which helped fund the building of the house.

The plan of the house and use of its rooms didn’t change a great deal after the 1730s. However, changes to the internal decoration and furnishings happened with every generation. As expected, new owners and inhabitants reacted to changing tastes, fashions and technologies.

The State Bedroom

Grand 18th-century houses often imitated royal palaces by having a state bedroom. State beds, however, were ultimately status symbols and weren’t for day-to-day sleeping.

They were often commissioned to mark a significant family event or intended for important royal visitors. Clandon’s state bed was made around 1710 for the pre-existing house.

The state bed

With metres of silk embroidery, intricate tasselling and an accompanying suite of furniture, it was the most expensive object in the house and iconic within the Onslow family.

The State Bedroom that houses the bed was originally lined with blue wooden panelling, but was later decorated with various colours and styles of wallpaper by different generations of the family.

The state bed was also moved by the 4th Earl in the late 19th century to a different room, but was moved back in the 1970s by the National Trust.

The Speakers’ Parlour

Another room that represents the Onslows’ strong political and societal ties is the Speakers’ Parlour. Three members of the Onslow family became Speaker of the House of Commons over the centuries, which is a unique achievement.

The parlour was always used as a dining room and was hung with portraits of the three Speakers as early as 1747.

19th-century alterations

Clandon house only saw small and gradual changes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – two rooms were merged into one, the basement layout was changed and the garden was landscaped. In fact, the Onslows didn’t even live here for over 40 years, from 1827 to 1870.

This was followed, however, by a period of growth and improvement when William 4th Earl of Onslow inherited Clandon Park when he was just 17. Along with his mother, he began updating the large family home, installing bathrooms and central heating.

Family life at Clandon Park

When William married, the house was filled with children and activity for the first time in 100 years. The family would put on plays and, when he wasn’t working in government, William had a great love of gardening.

However, one of the greatest times of change for Clandon came with the outbreak of war in 1914.

The First World War

At the invitation of Richard 5th Earl of Onslow and his wife Violet, Clandon was transformed from a family home to an Auxiliary Military Hospital. It had more than 100 beds for injured and recovering soldiers brought from the battlefields.

Violet became Commandant of the hospital while Richard became an intelligence officer in the War Office.

Clandon house, the hospital

Some of Clandon’s rooms, including the Marble Hall, were white-washed and cleared to be used as wards. Meanwhile, upstairs, rooms were turned into nurses’ accommodation.

Lord Onslow’s downstairs dressing room was chosen as the operating theatre, due to its running water and large north- and east-facing windows.

Clandon’s first patients

Clandon house admitted its first 101 patients on 12 October 1914. They were Belgian soldiers evacuated from their own country, some of whom hadn’t eaten for 48 hours and urgently needed care. Injured soldiers, including British men, continued to arrive throughout the war.

Despite the hospital staff’s efforts, some patients died of their injuries. Those who couldn’t be sent home to be buried were laid to rest in the cemetery of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, in neighbouring West Clandon. The cemetery is the place of rest for two Belgian soldiers, eight British, one Canadian and one Australian.

The end of the war

While the First World War ended in November 1918, the hospital at Clandon remained open until April 1919 to treat victims of the deadly Spanish flu.

Its last patients were discharged on 1 May 1919. In total, Clandon Park had admitted 5,059 patients and carried out 747 operations.

A black and white photograph of seven patients dining in the ward with two nurses at Clandon Park, Surrey during the First World War
First World War patients dining at Clandon Park | © National Trust Images/James Duffy

Clandon between the wars

Richard and Violet reoccupied the house with their two young children and life began to return to normal. Glass broken by a Zeppelin bomb was repaired and the house was redecorated.

Richard returned to his political career, becoming Under-Secretary of State at War and a privy councillor. He continued to be involved in local affairs and was heavily involved in the creation of Onslow Village, just outside Guildford. Here, good quality, affordable housing for demobilised soldiers was built.

The Second World War

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Clandon Park once again supported the war effort. This time it provided safe storage for precious documents from the Public Record Office away from the dangers of the Blitz.

The Onslow family moved out of their home to make way for Public Record Office staff, who carried out repairs to the fragile documents. Lorries delivered thousands of boxes of historic documents during the war, which were stored around the house, including towering piles in the Marble Hall.

Arthur Onslow during the war

Arthur 6th Earl of Onslow was awarded the Military Cross for his distinguished service in the war. After being held as a prisoner of war, he returned from Europe and his family reoccupied Clandon in 1946.

These were difficult times and the Onslow family found juggling estate management and the needs of the house demanding. Arthur and his wife Pamela made the difficult decision to move into a smaller house on the estate and opened Clandon to the public in 1950.

Restoring Clandon Park

Despite their best efforts, Arthur and Pamela couldn’t find the funds to carry out the extensive repairs that Clandon urgently needed. Arthur’s aunt, Gwendolen Guinness, Countess of Iveagh stepped in to help.

Lady Iveagh gave the house to the National Trust in 1956 and Arthur contributed to the cost of the repairs, including essential maintenance, a new roof and treatment for dry rot.

There wasn’t enough money for decoration, which is why it was more than a decade before John Fowler was hired to work on the interiors.

Hannah Gubbay’s collection

Hannah Gubbay was an avid collector of 17th- and 18th-century furniture, porcelain, fine needlework and tapestry. After she left her collection and a bequest to the National Trust in 1969, Clandon was chosen as the place to display this wonderful collection.

Hannah was married to David, banker to the wealthy Sassoon family, to whom both he and Hannah were related. She lived in a modest cottage on her cousin Sir Phillip Sassoon’s estate of Trent Par, Enfield.

Antiques shopping with the queen

Hannah Gubbay was a friend of Queen Mary’s and the two women enjoyed shopping for antiques in London showrooms. Hannah never bought ‘useful’ porcelain and wasn’t interested in building sets.

Instead, she chose pieces of high quality artistry and design. This explains the collection’s eclectic mix of beautiful English, French, German and Asian porcelain, which included a remarkable group of Chinese porcelain birds.

Refurbishing Clandon house

John Fowler was one of the most important interior designers of the mid-20th century, having worked on designs for both Buckingham Palace and Chequers.

Fowler began working on renewing historic houses in the post-war era, a time when they were beginning to open their doors to the public. From 1969, he was appointed to refurbish some of the state rooms at Clandon and advise how to display the collection from Hannah Gubbay.

In response, Fowler created an English country house style that combined modern comfort and taste with beautiful Georgian furniture and decorative arts.

Uncovering historic decoration

Fowler was an early pioneer of a technique that used paint scrapes to reveal historic decoration. However, he often added his own ‘twist’ that included complex and subtle colours and graining.

He recognised the rarity and importance of the historic wallpapers from the 1740s that were discovered under wall coverings. He also used a pioneering approach to investigate the historic decorative schemes and bring colour back into the ground-floor state rooms.

Along with Hannah Gubbay’s collection, Fowler transformed Clandon.

The fire in 2015

The fire in 2015 was a deeply sad moment in Clandon Park’s history. The destruction of important and historic paintings, furniture, Māori treasures, ceramics and books as well as interior finishes was a great loss.

While many houses have been demolished or left as ruins after suffering similar devastation, others have been repaired. The Trust is committed to opening a new chapter in the history of Clandon house, bringing it back to life in one shape or form.

A Korean stoneware water dropper in the shape of a duck, at Clandon Park 13th Jan 2016 - damaged after the fire.

Clandon Park's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Clandon Park on the National Trust Collections website.

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