Clandon House - Latest Plans

11 March 2024

Guildford Society Members meet the National Trust.

At a meeting on 27th March 20124, members of the Guildford Society, and their guests, welcomed  Kent Rawlinson, National Trust Project Director and Sophie Chessum, Project Curator at St Catherine’s Hall to hear the latest plans for the future of Clandon House.  Severely damaged in a fire 9 years ago.

The history of Clandon House

The house was built in the 1730s, designed by Italian architect Giacomo Leoni.  The house is a fine example of Palladian architecture and was built as a home for the influential Onslow family.

As built, Clandon was a contemporary of other major English country houses such as Houghton Hall and Lyme Park.  

Clandon was particularly noted for its decorative interiors  with plasterwork by Italian sculptors in plaster or stuccatori, Artari and Bagutti.  The Marble Hall was the most significant aspect of it's interior.

The House with the immediate surrounding formal gardens, and an area which is now a car park were transfered to the National Trust in the mid 1950's.   

Clandon Park, centred on Temple Court Farm, which is roughly bounded by the Rail Line to the north, A25 to the South and Clandon and Merrow to east and west; remains in the ownership of the Onslow family.  More information on the surrounding parkland can be found at Clandon Park. 

The Fire

Clandon House was almost completely gutted by the fire in 2015 with only the Speaker’s Parlour, with its beautiful ceiling. remaining intact, and some of the basement areas.  The rest of the house was reduced to skeletal, structurally solid, brick walls and fragments of the famous decorative plasterwork.

Clandon Park 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.

The fire created a highly unusual structure with the lightly-damaged 18th-century architecture of the outside contrasting with a destroyed interior.  The interior has revealed a valuable set of evidence as to how English country houses were built and a unique way to understand other 18th-century places. 

National Trust Plans - key points from meeting.

The Fire

Sophie Chessum was previously curator at several National Trust Houses including Clandon and Uppark she described how on the night of the fire she had rushed over to help the desperate efforts to remove as many of the contents as possible out of harm's way. In total over 500 objects were saved including ceramics, paintings and papers, from about 3500 in the collection.

Stabilising what was left

Over the following days rescuers acted quickly to prop the ceiling of the Speakers Parlour on the first floor, which had escaped the worst of the fire but was perilously unstable. Their brave action means it can be repaired to its original state.

Unfortunately this was not the case for the ceiling in the marble hall, which collapsed in the fire shattering on the floor below. Fragments ranging in size from a chunky cherubs thigh down to small slithers of foliage were carefully collected and catalogued over the months that followed and consultations began with a specialist laboratory in Switzerland close to the area from where the original crafts men came. After examination they concluded that the heat of the fire had caused an irreversible chemical reaction which distorted and shrank the pieces making it impossible to reassemble.

A vision for the future

It was at this point that an alternative vision for the future of the building started to appear as a more viable option in which only selected parts, notably the exterior, the Speakers Parlour, and some of the marble floors would be restored to their pre-fire state and the remaining shell would be left in its raw condition revealing the layers of its construction. Architects Allies and Morrison, with the National Trust, have developed plans to insert walkways and galleries into the shell at different levels to provide areas to exhibit the rescued objects and other displays. Two staircases and a lift will connect the levels and offer new views through the building. Cafes and community spaces are proposed on the lower level and an accessible roof terrace at the top.

More information on the details of the project can be found on the National Trust website  

Roof Terrace

Members of the audience raised concerns for the privacy of adjoining owners and questioned whether the roof terrace was compatible with the original design intent of the Neo-Palladian villa or with that of Capability Brown, who designed the landscaped garden to be viewed from the windows to make three small lakes appear as a single large expanse of water.

The speakers countered this, saying that a roof terrace would be a popular visitor attraction and meet the project aims to reveal the techniques used by the original makers of the house.

Could more be Restored?

Other questions concerned why the house was not to be restored to its former condition and whether this was a result of under insurance. The speakers were not at liberty to discuss financial matters but repeated that in the case of Clandon, it is the lack of surviving original material that prevents the possibility of an authentic repair.

The speakers discussed the difference between restoration and reconstruction.  The National Trust are focused on restoration of what is left, and propose that reconstruction is not the correct approach.

The Guildford Society Chairman Alistair Smith concluded the evening by thanking the speakers warmly for giving the members such valuable insight into their plans.

The Debate continues.

The Guildford Society will continue to review plans emerging from the National Trust.  The Society is encouraged that the first phase of work is now being caried out to conserve and stabilise brickwork. 

Subsequent to the meeting there have been differing reactions, some members expressing regret that full restoration is not being undertaken and others optimistic that the proposed plans will result in a different but still interesting and beautiful building.

The case for restoration not recreation can be found in the mission statement written by the leading voice of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, (See mission statement here) when he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). This pleads for the conservation of old buildings still standing in their original state but decries any form of restoration  because it can only result in “a feeble and lifeless forgery”. SPAB have indeed endorsed the National Trust approach for Clandon in their magazine winter 2023 saying that it is “the right one for the house”

While Uppark is cited as an example of successful restoration, the proposals for Clandon are far more aligned to the Neues Musem in Berlin where a team lead by David Chipperfield have managed to integrate building fragments within a contemporary architectural scheme that is deeply moving and enhances one’s appreciation of both the old and the new.


Share this article

Help us make Guildford better

We want our town to be vibrant, attractive and liveable. We support development that brings a sense of place and enhances the best aspects of our town. If such aims can be embraced, we believe Guildford has the chance to lead the way in enabling sensitive and sustainable development.

Pressures for development are increasing. Planning rules are being eased. The Society’s commitment to standing up for Guildford is needed more than ever.

Support Us

Getting involved allows the society to continue its work.   We welcome new members, from every age and background.  Membership provides an opportunity for you to contribute to the continued health of the town and surrounding area, and to meet other people who care about Guildford.