National Trust unveils its Clandon plans (ctd.)

July 11 2022

Video: National Trust

Last week, on the morning of the Prime Minister's departure, the National Trust unveiled its plans for Clandon Park, the 18th Century palladian house gutted by fire in 2015. And its not quite what we were expecting.

In 2016, the Trust announced they would restore the state rooms on the ground floor, and leave the upper floors as flexible space. Which, as I wrote at the time, seemed like a sensible compromise between restoration and recreation. As the Trust said then:

Given their historic and cultural significance, and the fact so many original features have survived, we believe we should restore the magnificent state rooms on the ground floor – the most architecturally important and beautiful rooms.

The Trust's video setting out this plan has since been deleted. And now, however, the Trust has said it will only leave one room in its original state, the Speaker’s Parlour, which survived the fire largely intact. The house will instead be left in its fire damaged state, as part of a new visitor experience to apparently demonstrate how such houses were built, or as the Trust says, "offering people a unique ‘X ray view’ of how country houses were made”. Consequently, the magnificent marble hall will not be restored, but left as you see it in the photo below left.

From Harriet Sherwood's coverage in The Guardian:

Plans by the National Trust, which has owned the Grade I-listed house since 1956, will allow visitors to see the “raw power and poetic beauty” of the building after the flames stripped away panelling and plasterwork and brought down floors, said Kent Rawlinson, the project director.

The external walls and windows of the building near Guildford, Surrey, will be restored by heritage craftspeople, but the interior will be largely conserved in its fire-damage state.

Once the work is complete, in about five years, a series of interior walkways and roof lights will allow visitors to view the shell of the house up close and from new angles.

I think this is very disappointing. First, and most worryingly, the Trust’s primary purpose is to preserve the properties it has in its care. Its slogan is, ‘forever, for everyone’. But the decision not to restore the house, or at least part of it, means they’re turning their back on the ‘forever’ part. It represents a committed departure from the Trust seeing preservation and conservation as its most important role. Instead, the primary concern is to create what visitors are deemed to want to see.

Secondly, it appears the decision is being driven primarily by cost. I’m not sure quite why, but the house was under-insured. The £65m settlement the Trust received from its insurers is not enough to cover a proper restoration. The cost of the current plan will be met by the payout, but also from the Trust's reserves (which, during the pandemic, Trust management refused to dip into in order to avoid sacking so many staff). So far, the Trust has confirmed to me that all the £65m will be spent at Clandon, but not that it will all be spent on the building and contents itself.

I find the idea that the Clandon plan is a good way ‘to learn about how these houses were built’ to be quite childish. It should be possible to learn how houses are built without leaving them a ruin. In any case, we are not short of county house ruins in Britain. And what better way could we learn about how such houses were built than in trying to recreate them, by rediscovering and preserving the skills 18th Century craftsmen and women would have used in the 18th Century?

Will Trust members and visitors welcome the new Clandon? Personally, I think the idea of standing in a burnt out shell feels grim - a form of heritage rubbernecking - and will soon lose its novelty. Who would want to go back to Clandon for a nice day out, and spend money in the tea room and gift shop, once they’ve seen it?

But the most depressing part of all this is that it seems to me not enough questions are being asked as to how the Trust let this all happen. What lessons are being learned? Has, for example, the Trust overhauled its insurance policies, to fully cover the cost of reinstatement at all its properties? Because surely the really important thing is that it never happens again.

Let me know what you think.

Update - a reader writes:

The decision by the Trust to abandon what Pevsener called “one of the most important early Palladian rooms in England” and what Simon Jenkins, ex-chairman of the National Trust, described as “one of the great rooms of early Georgian England” should not be left unchallenged. 

The importance of the Marble Hall at Clandon was recognised by the Trust itself in 2017 when it revealed its initial restoration plans and to do a U-turn after seven long years is incredibly disappointing to all lovers of architecture, beauty and social history.

The real question is ‘why' and the Trust needs to urgently issue a statement to clarify its decision making,  There are at least four competing theories:

Reason 1 - the house speaks. The official line, per the glossy PR film issued by the Trust, seems to suggest that after 7 years everyone suddenly realised on reflection that the story of the house was best told if it was left as a ruin. As you say, it is a childish rationale and does not offer 'unique opportunities to tell stories', whatever the Trust says.  Witley Court, Nymans, Seaton Delavel plus dozens of English Heritage buildings are all presented in a partially ruined state.  There is no need for another.

Reason 2 - there is nothing left to restore. The pre-prepared responses from the NT Twitter feed take a different view, They say that insufficient historic fabric survived to complete a decent reconstruction yet in 2017 their website said ”Given their historic and cultural significance, and the fact so many original features have survived, we believe we should restore the magnificent state rooms on the ground floor”.  How can both views be true?

Reason 3 - follow the money. Your research indicates that insufficient insurance may be the reason for the volte face.  If this is the case then why hasn’t the Trust mentioned this in their announcements to date? 

Reason 4 - decolonisation. Clandon has historic links to the slave trade and Jenkins mentions “putti and slaves in deep relief’ on the stucco ceiling of the Marble Hall. Is it possible that the idea of recreating something with these associations was simply too difficult for the Trust to contemplate? If this is thecae, then what precedent does it set?

As a local resident, I have kept a keen eye on Clandon and despite a number of requests there has still been no inventory of items lost or saved following the fire.  It is as if the Trust has simply lost interest in the house.

Contrast the current spin and lack of ambition with the response of the Trust to the fire at Uppark in 1989.  Nearly 4,000 dustbins were filled with the fragmentary remains of the all the principal rooms and four years later the house re-opened,  The effort galvanised the community, enabled lost crafts to be re-learned, and the house today tells its story far better than if it had been left as a ruin.

Given the critical spotlight cast on the Trust in recent years, it seems to me that the Clandon fiasco is another own goal.  It does nothing to assuage those who believe that the Trust is increasingly ashamed of the buildings in its care.

Many good points. What I also find surprising is how the Trust made its U-turn without any wider public or membership consultation.

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