Last edited 05 Dec 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The sad demise of Clandon Park

The statesman and politician Speaker Onslow (1679–1740) would be turning in his grave. So would the world-famous architect Giacomo Leoni (1686–1746). These men were responsible for the singular architectural composition that was Clandon Park in Surrey, which was gutted by fire in April this year. Undoubtedly Clandon was one of the most important country mansions in England. Its loss is a huge blow to architecture, architectural history and the arts as a whole.

Psychology has proved that this disaster will have prompted profound feelings of loss for those who loved it best, and who lived out their daily lives in and around the building. But as hard as the loss of Clandon is to come to terms with, we really do need to accept that these large-scale fires are an occasional part of our relationship with country houses. If we can accept the inevitability of such fires (and history proves that they are not as rare as we might think), this may change the way we use, enjoy and record these buildings while we still have them. The wider press has bemoaned the loss of Clandon but with little regard to what we might do. Our response to Clandon’s demise will demonstrate if we have truly taken on board the inevitability of occasional fire and whether we have learned much since the last devastating fires of Hampton Court, Windsor Castle and Uppark.

Clandon Park is currently being hailed as Giacomo Leoni’s architectural masterpiece and the seminal work of his career. Admittedly these statements are being made now that the building has been ruined but it was indeed a superb country seat. It was particularly important for the stylistic bridge it formed between neo- Palladianism and the baroque style. Built in the early 1720s, Clandon was designed to increase the dignity and gravitas of Speaker Onslow who had become very wealthy through his marriage in 1708 to the Jamaican heiress Elizabeth Knight. His family was elevated to the peerage in 1716. It may have been this that prompted him to build in such a grand style.

Onslow decided to build Clandon with the help of Leoni. A Venetian, Leoni had come to England in 1714 aged 28, having worked in Dusseldorf. He was instrumental in bringing Palladian style to the English aristocracy through his publication of the first complete translation of Palladio’s I Quattro Libri D’ell Architettura. The translation was a huge success and led to multiple editions. On the frontispiece Leoni titled himself ‘Architect to his most serene Highness, the Elector Palatinate’.

While this claim remains unsubstantiated, the freshness and confidence of Leoni’s designs makes it easy to believe. As a Venetian, Leoni would have seen Palladio’s villas first hand. If, as I believe, he did work for the Palatine Elector, he would have been in prime position to see the Palladian style which was emerging from the neighbouring electorate of Hanover. There was very free movement of artists and architects between these two courts at this time. Indeed, Johann Peter Wachter, a proven court architect of the electorate of Palatine, is well known to have worked on Herrenhausen, the Palace in Hanover.

In his own unique manner Leoni built Clandon. He tempered its serious, quiet and refined Palladian exterior with an interior of baroque flair which makes the building come alive in a way that pure Palladian buildings often fail to do. Of red brick and with stone dressings for its articulation, the west front of Clandon provides a good example of Leoni’s preference for materials. The warm red brick is decorated with giant, two-storey stone pilasters and stone medallions. Of especial beauty was Clandon’s double-height Marble Hall, executed in muted colours, which better highlighted the flamboyance of the adjoining suite of state rooms. Clandon was altered in the later 18th century by Robert Adam but these changes did not detract from Leoni’s design intentions.

Despite his great influence on the dissemination of neo-Palladianism, Leoni himself did not have a vast repertoire of completed buildings. In total he could boast of only nine completed buildings, five of which (including Clandon) have been lost. Clandon, although its shell remains, sadly can not be said to be a good or complete example of Leoni’s work any more.

Despite the tragedy of events of 20 April, and now that we are over the initial shock and sadness, there is little point in any continued bewilderment over the fire at Clandon. As long as we have country houses, or indeed buildings of any type, some will inevitably be lost through devastating fires. Beyond the sensible precautions of fire safety reviews, fire management plans and early detection measures, it is impossible that every single cause of fire will ever be eliminated. We can not anticipate and prevent every failure and every fire. This is due, in no small part, to human error and oversight. Even when we detect a fire almost immediately, it is usually impossible to prevent its spread. Recent history is testament to this.

Most of us will remember the raging inferno at Uppark in August 1989 and the horrifying pictures shown on live news. The fire there was started in the roof by a blowtorch being left by a workman during repairs to the lead flashings. Ironically the work was all but finished and due to be completed only two days later. The fire broke out during opening hours but had become an inferno before it could be tackled. The garret and upper floor collapsed into the lower floors, their contents being entirely lost, although much of the panelling and decoration survived. Much of the ground floor contents survived but were badly damaged by the weight of the upper floors as they crashed down. Later many of these ground floor contents were reconstructed. Uppark re-opened in 1995 after six long years of restoration.

In similarly random fashion the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992 was started by a curtain being ignited by a spotlight in the Queen’s private chapel that became too hot. The fire started at 11.33am and was detected by an automatic detection system. The alarm was raised with the castle’s own patrolling firemen. Just four minutes later, at 11.37, a call was made to the control room at Reading. At 12.12pm 20 fire engines were at the scene. By 12.20 this had risen to 35, with 200 firemen. The response could hardly have been faster. Yet at 7pm the roof of St George’s Hall collapsed, and the fire raged until 11pm that night with flames reaching over 50 feet high.

Pockets of fire were still being put out 15 hours later. Damage included the floor of the Brunswick Tower, the Green Drawing Room, the Crimson Drawing room, the Queen’s private chapel, the State Dining Room and many other rooms. In total 100 rooms were burned, with colossal damage amounting to £36.5 million of repair. All this damage occurred after an amazingly fast response time of four minutes. In a serendipitous twist of fate the seven most seriously damaged rooms had been emptied the previous day for re-wiring.

One does not have to scour history to see the many and varied causes of fire within the built heritage. Witley Court in Worcestershire, now owned by English Heritage, suffered a blaze in 1937 as a result of small fire which started in the bakery below-stairs. While only one wing of the vast building was ruined, Witley Court was never repaired by its then owner, Sir Herbert Smith, as the insurance company declined to cover the damage. The house was later sold off in lots before being handed to English Heritage.

Lindridge House in Devon also burned down in 1963 and the insurance company similarly did not pay out. This was because it had been stipulated that the estate’s swimming pool should always remain full in case of fire. At the time of the fire the pool had been emptied for cleaning and had not been refilled. The extent of the fire meant that the small amount of water in the pool would have made no difference whatsoever to the blaze, but it provided a convenient loophole for the insurers. Lindridge House was finally demolished in 1990s, never having been repaired.

There have also been more sinister reasons for fires. The house of chancellor of the exchequer John Aislabie (1670– 1742) in Red Lion Square, London, was burnt down in 1700, tragically killing his wife and daughter. His son escaped narrowly by climbing out of an attic window. This appears to have been an accident, although Aislabie suffered another terrible fire on Christmas Day of 1716, this time at his home in Studley Royal, Yorkshire. It turned out that this was started on purpose by a malevolent housemaid to hide the theft of a basket of linen.

No matter what the cause, fires are and always have been part of the history of buildings. As long as destruction of the heritage by fire is not quite preventable, and it seems that we will never quite eliminate the possibility, it is our response to these fires after the event which is important. There have been clear benefits from fires. For example, the restoration of Windsor Castle benefited hugely from the fire at Uppark a few years before, which had necessarily brought about a massive resurgence in historic crafts and skills. The rapid training of specialist craftsmen and women was essential at Uppark due to the constraints of the insurers, who set strict time limits to the repair of various aspects of the building.

These craftsmen and women, and the resurrected crafts and skills they now had, were immediately applied to Windsor Castle. This is not a unique situation. Indeed, just as Windsor benefited from the fire at Uppark, so Uppark benefited from the lessons learned from the fire at Hampton Court of 1989, which was started by a candle left burning by an elderly retainer who sadly perished in the fire.

The decision to restore a building is almost always based on financial reasoning rather than, as we might imagine, on a building’s significance. Even the decision to restore a building as important as Uppark was not taken because of its undisputed heritage value. It was simply determined that restoration would be a cheaper settlement for the insurance company than a payout to the National Trust for its total loss. If the insurance company had decided to write it off as a loss, deeming this the less expensive option, Uppark would almost certainly still be a visitor destination for the National Trust, but as a ruin. So we must not assume that restoration after a fire, for Clandon or any other building, will necessarily be forthcoming. It has been stated widely that Clandon should be restored because with all the craft skills we have regained, we can rebuild it. But the fact that we can does not necessarily mean that we will.

The restoration or otherwise of Clandon will depend on its unique financial set-up and insurance cover. It will also depend on the financial situations of the private companies which rented the basement of Clandon, as well as on the determined cause of fire, for which, at the time of writing, we still wait. It is irrelevant and unrealistic to state that because we can, we will; and history does not show that because we can, we do.

We should certainly encourage and push for full restoration of this unique building: Leoni’s masterpiece and Onslow’s pride. Failing this, of course, we should carry out an extremely thorough recording of the ruin. But, as someone who assisted in cataloguing the record photos after the Uppark fire, it often strikes me that our almost telescopic recording and photographing of the remnants of ruined, burned-out buildings, carried out so painstakingly after a fire, should surely be carried out pre-fire as a precaution, while the structure is whole. It would be so much better were we confident that, if a building were to burn down tomorrow, we were in a position where we have learned and gained everything we possibly could from it. Stable-door recording after the proverbial horse has bolted is just not that useful.

The decision about poor Clandon’s burnt-out shell has yet to be taken. No doubt there will be surprise and outcry if the National Trust is forced to consolidate it as a ruin. However, this is as likely, if not more likely than full restoration: Uppark and Windsor were lucky. Given the harsh reality of such fires and the number of demolitions history has seen after fires, our best response to existing country houses is to record first (forensically if a building is significant), and then enjoy it and appreciate it knowing that it may not be with us forever.


This article originally appeared in Context 141, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in November 2015. It was written by Carole Fry, a director of AHC Consultants, freelance writer and architectural historian.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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