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Why Clandon Park is important

Plasterwork in the Speaker's Parlour at Clandon Park, Surrey
Plasterwork in the Speaker's Parlour | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Since it was built in the 1730s, Clandon Park has been important. Designed by Italian architect Giacomo Leoni, it is a fine example of Palladian architecture and home of the influential Onslow family – these are just some of the reasons for this importance.

With impressive decorative plasterwork created by Italian sculptors in plaster or stuccatori, Artari and Bagutti, Clandon was part of a family of great English country houses built around the same time including Houghton Hall and Lyme Park. Historians often refer to such important buildings and places as ‘significant’.

When fire broke out at Clandon in 2015, it destroyed nearly all the decorative interiors. All that remained was the skeletal structurally solid brick walls and fragments of its famous decorative plasterwork, except for the near-complete survival of the Speakers' Parlour and its beautiful ceiling. This room was furthest from where the fire started and suffered mostly from water damage. Yet despite all this loss and patchy survival Clandon is still important today.

Clandon Park’s importance today

From the outside, the house at Clandon still looks much as it did before the fire, and still sits in its gardens and grounds, partly designed by Capability Brown, as it has for almost three-hundred years. The fire created a highly unusual structure with the lightly-damaged 18th-century architecture of the outside contrasting with the spaces stripped bare and joined-up by the fire inside. Boundaries between upstairs and downstairs have burnt or fallen away, and evidence of how Clandon and other Georgian houses were built has been revealed.

The interior of the mansion following the fire at Clandon Park, Surrey
Evidence of how Georgian houses were built has been revealed | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Shaped by the fire

The fire created large new spaces and dramatic views through and between them. Some spaces stretch from basement to roof level, others give unobstructed views through the house. This has changed the social organisation of space and provides a different way of seeing an 18th-century house changing Clandon’s significance forever.

  • Strikingly the Marble Hall and former Palladio Room are now spaces open to the sky above, creating dramatic and awe-inspiring effects. These could be described as ‘sublime’, the idea fashionable in 18th-century literature of spaces and places that are awe-inspiring and frightening all at the same time.
  • The loss of most floors has removed the physical barriers of a typical ‘upstairs/downstairs’ organisation of space by social class and created open spaces that contain both the formally grand rooms of the wealthy Onslow family and the smaller, simpler rooms of their servants.
  • Rather than a series of rooms and corridors, Clandon is now place of unusual and dynamic views through the vast brick-box of the house and out to the gardens beyond.
  • The new interior of Clandon today has a powerful dramatic character, heightened by the survival of fragments and layers of the earlier decoration. How a space looks and makes us feel is often called ‘aesthetic significance’. Ironically, whilst the fire stripped away Clandon’s elegant classical interiors, the result is spaces which have a raw, damaged beauty of their own.
Marble Hall fireplace at Hatchlands Park, Surrey
The fire has revealed stories around the house's construction | © National Trust/Andrew Shaylor

Revealed by the fire

Past decoration, construction methods, design decisions - Clandon’s new and evolved importance today is partly based on what has been revealed by the fire. The house provides valuable evidence – like a walk-in textbook – of how English country houses were built and a unique way to understand other 18th-century places.

  • Exposed finishes in the Marble Hall show how wooden laths and layers of plaster were carefully built up to create the illusion of marble walls, while the loss of wallpaper in the State Bedroom has exposed original, blue-painted wooden panelling seen for the first time in generations.
  • Evidence of reused materials from the Jacobean building Thomas Onslow demolished to make way for the current house has been found in the stripped back brickwork, as well as clues about the production of the 3.2 million bricks needed to build the Palladian mansion.
  • Fragments of decorative plasterwork are revealing some of the trade secrets of the famous Italian stuccatori. Elsewhere, plaster still fixed to the wall shows how the different layers of finishes were applied by the English plaster artisans who created the flat plaster surfaces throughout the house.
  • Blocked up or moved doorways and fireplaces hint at construction decisions and methods, and the relationship between the architect, builders, and Thomas Onslow and his family as they made Clandon Park their home.
  • For the first time in 100 years there will be access to the roof. Looking down at the gardens, across to the church, and out to the rising skyline of Woking, visitors have a new opportunity to place themselves and the historic house in its geographic location.
Attic fireplace above Marble Hall at Clandon Park, Surrey
Attic fireplace above Marble Hall at Clandon Park, Surrey | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The original fabric

Part of Clandon Park’s importance today lies in the partial remains of the decorative elements of the original building, from the beautiful marble chimneypieces and overmantels by John Michael Rysbrack in the Marble Hall to the decorative plaster frieze in the Saloon. As our team of expert curators continue to research and build their overarching historic knowledge and understanding of the house, they can pinpoint what is most important and choose the best ways to preserve these areas with input from specialist conservation professionals.

  • The Onslow family’s dining room known as the Speakers’ Parlour survived the fire relatively undamaged and this historic and nationally significant room, including a beautiful ceiling by Italian stuccatori, will be carefully repaired and conserved.
  • Situated in the garden opposite the south front of the house, the grotto is a significant feature designed and built by Leoni as the house was being constructed.
  • Some high-status, ground- floor rooms like the State Bedroom and Library still have important areas of wooden panelling, wallpaper and plasterwork. These are important because they are a record of what has been lost and often have a poetic, fragmentary beauty of their own.
  • In many places, the architect’s and stuccatori's intentions can still be understood and the revealed layers show us how they created these special interiors.
Grotto in the  garden at Clandon Park, Surrey
The grotto was designed and built by Leoni | © National Trust/Andrew Shaylor

The exterior walls

All four of Clandon Park’s building fronts are different designs, which is unusual for a house of this date. Like other important Country houses, Clandon Park has a high-status front and entrance to impress visitors approaching the house; however, there is no plain back entrance here. In this way, Clandon is like a European villa, with all four sides designed to be seen. Leoni came from Venice in Italy where renowned architect Andrea Palladio and ‘Palladian’ architecture originated and where he designed villas which were imposing on all four sides.

The collection

The collection remains a key part of Clandon’s importance today. Ensuring an appropriate home for objects in the house is a focus of its preservation and conservation. Many collection objects – including paints, furniture, and ceramics – were completely saved from the fire or were recovered as fragments by archaeologists from debris during a highly complex salvage operation. The collection continues to be cared for by the curatorial team who organise public displays and lend objects to exhibitions held at other museums.

The State Bed before the fire at Clandon Park, Surrey
The State Bed before the fire | © National Trust Images/Anthony Parkinson

The State Bed

Dating from around 1710, the State Bed would have been Richard and Elizabeth Onslow’s most expensive purchase. Made with textiles embroidered in silk and elaborate fringing and tassles, or ‘passementerie’, in preparation for a visit from King George I, the bed symbolises the Onslow family’s influence and royal connections.

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What Clandon Park means to people

When a place has meaning for many people, it’s said to have communal significance. Clandon is important because of what it means to people, both past visitors with memories of what it was and recent visitors with memories of it today following the fire.

  • From opening as a National Trust property in 1958 many thousands of people have made memories at Clandon. From meeting up with friends and family, enjoying the spectacular rooms, the beautiful and interesting collection objects and learning about the history of this special place. It is a particularly memorable place for those couples fortunate to have their marriages celebrated in the Saloon and Marble Hall and was the home and place of work for National Trust staff and volunteers.
  • For many years, local residents enjoyed the restaurant in the basement of Clandon to eat and entertain friends, as well as frequenting the Christmas carol concerts organised by the National Trust in the Marble Hall.
  • As one of the Onslow residences, the house at Clandon meant home for their family from 1641 until the 1950s.
  • For soldiers during WWI, it was a place of recuperation and safety and where nurses and doctors cared for them.
  • During WWII, Clandon was home to a small number of dedicated staff members from the Public Record Office (now National Archives) who cared for some of our nation’s most historically important documents which were stored in many boxes throughout the house.
  • Over 70,000 people have visited Clandon since the fire and they have created a new relationship with the building, one of awe and wonder, with a keen interest in what they can learn from the building and an interest in the progress of the conservation and renewal project.

Clandon Park’s importance is not fixed in time. It is always evolving. In future years, as visitors are welcomed to take part in new social, cultural and learning events, and as they make new memories, Clandon’s communal meaning and importance will continue to grow.

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