The National Trust portfolio & Clandon Park

This week my thoughts turned (once again) to the role of the National Trust in terms of the protection and presentation of our country houses and historic architecture as a visitor experience.

The reason why this particular topic popped up again is that I returned yesterday from a week visiting Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and around Liverpool, where all the houses and gardens we enjoyed bar one were essentially privately owned (or owned by a property-specific charity).  That “bar one” was a National Trust property.

We enjoyed Berkeley Castle, Eastnor Castle, a bunch of gardens in Gloucestershire open on Easter Monday for the National Garden Scheme and Painshill Rococo Garden.  Each property or garden shone because of its own quirks and individuality.  We could clearly see the interiors of the properties as the curtains were open, and at Eastnor Castle the log fire in the great hall was lit and the embers crackling.

Our final house was Speke Hall, a National Trust house just outside Liverpool.  It was a prime example of the National Trust slapping us in the face with their brand and tapping us on the shoulder at every corner, reminding us “not to touch”, “not to sit”, don’t go here, watch the mud, don’t be noisy in the maze, keep to the path, don’t have your picnic here, and if you are coming into the house you must hand all your bags in at the entrance for safekeeping because if you damage something “this will be a very expensive visit”.  That didn’t stop me seeing numerous children walking into chair legs and leaning on cabinets while they asked their parents to help them with the pronunciation of “surface” (or in one case to explain what surface means) as they read the signs on the top of every piece of furniture reading “don’t put your fingers on or touch my shiny surface”. In addition, most of the curtains in the house were shut and (disappointingly) the “fire” consisited of cloth flames been blown by a fan in the fireplace above some electric light faux coals.  We couldn’t see much, so we spent far less time inside the house than we could have.

The experience made me question the role of the National Trust Is it to share and promote our country’s architecture – the buildings that form the physical framework of our lives and which are – especially in the National Trust’s case – a means of exploring our country’s history and culture via something that we can touch, smell and feel?  Or is it to preserve at all cost something that will ultimately deteriorate, while at the same time dumbing down the experience to the extent that the entire property becomes a giant children’s playground. 

None of the other houses I visited this week took Speke Hall’s approach, and only last Saturday I was at RHS Wisley, where everything is presented at an intelligent level while at the same time incorporating a *free* (included in the standard admission cost) Easter egg hunt for families.  By contrast, the National Trust charge extra for their Easter egg hunt and we have noticed that sometimes at National Trust properties entry prices seem just high enough that any sensible family would be encouraged the take out an annual membership, thus making entry for the one-off visitor quite high and prompting at certain properties repeat visits just to let the children play in the activity area.

In the maze I met a mother stood at the centre podium.  She explained to me that her family visit Speke Hall so often that her son now enjoys the maze by having her time him to see how fast he can find his way to the centre from the maze entrance.  She went on to explain that the maze is designed with gates as the dead ends, to allow the National Trust to change the layout with ease and thus keep visitors guessing; but the gates haven’t been changed for so long, that her son has now memorised the layout.

Even some of the volunteers seem to be disillusioned by the institution that they belong to.  Inside Speke Hall we enjoyed a game of billiards and the room steward laughed about how the steward in the Morning Room imparted no more wisdom to visitors than confirming to ever other child that her room was indeed the Morning Room and could be ticked off their house hunt list.  Other visitors in the billiards room looked on at us in horror as we played, some in shock that we might be allowed to interact with the museum exhibits, others suggesting that we were damaging the billiards table by the mere act of using it for its intended purpose.  I learned how to play billiards, and my game while we chatted to the room steward was the most enjoyable part of the whole visit.

This brings me to Clandon Park and the National Trust’s approach there.

I visited Clandon Park in 2009.  I recall the great entrance hall, but not much more of the house.  The visit was made before I started documented my trips.  The devastating fire that took hold of the house on 29 April 2015 and rendered it a shell with only one corner of the building and elsewhere the odd ghost of the mantelpiece surviving, made me think back and regret that I hadn’t taken more pictures.  The shock of losing such a significant and high-profile interior also prompted hundreds of newspaper and magazine columns on the subject, most raising the immediate question of what to do with the house.  Given the house was insured and it would be possible to restore it, should it be?

I kept a number of articles on the subject of “what next” for the house.  I read Matthew Beckett’s reflections over at The Country Seat (see here) and Emile de Bruijn’s article about the preserved state of the Spaker’s Parlor (here) on the NT Treasure Hunt blog.

Clandon Park
Source: National Trust

As time passed, I watched criticism be lobbied at the National Trust, while they considered how to respond, how to spend the insurance money, and then finally as they reopened the house to the public and confirmed in January 2016 their plans to restore the State Rooms and invite re-purposing proposals for the upper floors.  Myself, at that point I wasn’t sure if the ruin should be left, the entire house restored to its prior state, a new interior constructed (to share the experience of visiting a house as though it would have been when originally commissioned), or the historic shell re-purposed.

I have this week been sorting through my papers, tidying up and organising my many copies of Country Life Magazine, and an even greater stash of country house leaflets and articles that I had read somewhere in one magazine or another and torn out, to read on another day.  One article by John Goodall in the 10 May 2017 Country Life caught my eye and I’ve since read it twice – I’ve copied it below.  I also re-read this article by Simon Jenkins in the 10 June 2017 Country Life.

My musings lead me to conclude that each National Trust house should be able to depart somewhat from the “brand” of the institution, that things should be allowed to wear out (so the curtains opened and fabrics allowed to fade) and as they need be replaced, they are.  The coals should burn in the fire and a family should live in each house insofar as there is space to permit that.  This will breathe life, activity and movement into the building, intrigue each visitor to guess what they might encounter at the next property (the National Trust isn’t the Premier Inn – people aren’t visiting just because they know exactly what they will get, even if they are reassured by clean toilets, a play area and a well-stocked cafe), and the wheels of action will not be rusted by bureaucracy.

Therefore, I would rebuild parts of Clandon.  I would make it a working project that everyone can see – why not put the workshops on site and show the new furniture being built, allow visitors to see the wall hangings being put up.  Not as a sideshow but as a living experience of what it takes to build and furnish a country house on the scale of Clandon Park (health and safety permitting).

When I visit a house, I often think about what it would have looked like when just completed.  As I watch TV programmes set in Tudor times and using historic buildings, I always think that the faded patina of the interiors would have sparkled when the events imagined were taking place in the 1500s.  I long to see inside some of the new country houses that have been built in the last two decades (such as Ferne Park, commissioned by Viscount Rothermere and constructed in 2001 at a reputed cost in the region of £40m).  I for one would appreciate living through Clandon Park’s rebirth, going the whole hog and not just leaving it partly finished.

The question for me is whether when the house is complete, should it be sold as a private home, used as a grand holiday let, or should its upper floors be used for exhibition spaces and the State Rooms merely be there for admirers to enjoy, knowing that the interiors are examples of craftsmanship from the 21st century to 18th century designs?  Dare I suggest the house being sold to be a private home and the upper floors converted to sleeping accommodation for the new owners?  I might.  Then in another few hundred years’ time, the house might once again be donated to a charity as a period example of 21st century skill splicing in 18th century remains, all being contained in an historic exterior (just like the Belgravia houses that are often taken back to a shell and the interior rebuilt to accommodate modern lifestyles).  But the Charity Commission and popular public opinion would probably never allow it.

I write this having not yet visited Clandon since the fire.  One afternoon this year, I’ll go down there and see it for myself before the restoration starts.  I wonder if I will change my mind?


Clandon Park after the fire: The National Trust’s largest ever reconstruction project

The destruction of Clandon in a fire in 2015 presents the National Trust with its largest ever reconstruction project and some difficult decisions to make. John Goodall examines the dilemmas that it faces in achieving a meaningful result.

[Originally published in Country Life on 10 May 2017]

It is more than two years since Clandon Park was consumed by fire. The blaze, which began on April 29, was caused by an electrical distribution board in the basement of the building and was reported to the emergency services at 4.09pm. Staff and volunteers evacuated the building, which was open to the public at the time, and, nine minutes later, the first fire engine arrived.

The fire spread rapidly, rising through the basement by way of a lift shaft that followed the line of an Edwardian predecessor. By 5.50pm, it had spread through every floor and the flames lit the evening sky. The following morning, the smouldering house was a roofless, gutted wreck. The fire services closed the incident on May 8.


The dramatic spectacle of the burning country house, which had been rebuilt by Thomas Onslow in about 1730, anticipated to the full its calamitous effects. As the fire report succinctly states: ‘Clandon Park was 95% damaged by fire, leading to the collapse of the roof and 95% of the internal floors.’ Despite this, some important architectural fittings have survived, including the principal fireplaces, and sorting through the debris has revealed fragments of decorative plasterwork from the interior.

No less devastating was the loss of its contents. Despite the crisis starting in mid afternoon, few furnishings were removed. In as far as any two emergencies can be
compared, this is in striking contrast to incidents at Hampton Court in 1986, Uppark in 1989 and Windsor Castle in 1992. The contrast is, as yet, imperfectly explained. Public attention has been focused instead on the handful of objects that survived, some—such as the remains of Clandon’s state bed—almost miraculously, considering the state of the chamber it stood in. The architectural fragments, extant furnishings and works of art cleared from the ruins are now stored off-site awaiting conservation.

In the months after the fire, the technical difficulties of extracting steel inserted
into the building in the 1960s, combined with safety concerns about melted lead from the roof, meant that the ruin remained open to the weather until the end of October 2015. Again, this seems slow, although, in fairness, changing safety standards have greatly complicated the process of securing a ruin on this scale. The scaffolding will be in place for several years.

The fire has come at a fascinating moment in the Trust’s history, when there has been growing criticism of its attitude towards the properties in its care. To critics, it has become embarrassed and confused by these buildings and their contents, uncertain as to their popular appeal and even their significance. It has riposted by citing the scale of its financial commitment towards conservation and the many projects it has undertaken, most recently at Knole, Kent.

It is easy for critics to take potshots at a big institution, but, in this particular case, something has evidently gone wrong. The Trust’s curatorial branch has effectively been marginalised within the organisation. The expert panels it has long relied upon—of Arts, architecture, archaeology and gardens—have been wound up and their roles subsumed elsewhere. A recent internal review has implicitly acknowledged the problem and, in response, the body promised in October 2016 almost to double the number of curators, from 36 to 65, over the next two years, as well as to appoint a Director of Curation and Experience to lead them. In view of these changes, the treatment of Clandon becomes a bellweather for the Trust’s developing attitude to its houses.

Clandon was insured on the basis of like-for-like reconstruction, so, setting aside the option of demolition, it was almost inevitable that the building would be reconstructed in some way. However, Clandon was acquired by the Trust in 1956—it was not a direct gift from the Onslow family, but purchased as a bequest by Lady Iveagh from them—because it was a major 18th-century country house with important contents. Today, the qualities that imbued this property with significance have been almost entirely lost. As if to pre-empt the criticism that it is engaged in a vain project to replace the irreplaceable, the Trust has not plumped for a full rebuild, as it did for Uppark.

Instead, an ‘international design competition’ was launched on March 9 to identify ‘a world-class interdisciplinary design team’, led by an architect, that will bring Clandon ‘back to life through new uses’ (as yet unspecified). More particularly, the project director hopes for ‘the careful restoration of significant historic rooms with the reimagining of other spaces, on the upper floors’. There is much in these grand statements of intent that remains deliberately open to wide interpretation, but, in merely financial terms, this will be the largest project of its kind undertaken by the Trust.

Given the huge liabilities involved, it is almost inevitable that the shortlist will be led by large commercial firms of architects, who will aspire to create grand modern interiors in the upper floors. They will then co-opt the experience of much smaller firms of conservation practices, who will tackle the room restorations. Such an arrangement places the emphasis of the project on the new additions to the building; reading between the lines, it is hard not to suspect that the Trust is playing the games of many modern museums, plotting a prestige extension to a Georgian building in order to relate it to a contemporary audience. This begs the awkward question of to what purpose is this restoration really being undertaken?

On this point, the Trust apparently remains, as yet, undecided. The complexity and scale of the project present themselves like a Gordian knot and, rather than cut the tangle by assuming a clear philosophical approach, the organisation is trying to tease out the strands before committing itself. This seems sensible, but there are limits to what such an approach can achieve; at some point, the Trust as a patron needs to articulate clearly what it wants. Certainly, the vague aspiration that the house be brought to life seems inadequate in this regard. Not only would the alternative—putting it to death—be an absurdity, but even the modern additions won’t in themselves give the building a contemporary relevance unless undertaken with a clear sense of function.

There are hard decisions, too, in prospect even with regard to the restoration of the historic interiors. Take, for example, the superb Marble Hall, which survived up to the fire in broadly its 18th-century form.  However, the hall also underwent an important 19th-century alteration. When the external porte-cochère was added to the building in the 1870s, the main external door to the room was partially filled in, losing a skylight. The outline of this doorway and its rough brick infilling are now clearly visible in the gutted interior. Probably at the same time, a shallow internal porch of timber was created inside the door to keep out drafts. The remains of this structure, which partially obscured the internal doorcase, are still visible.

When the interior is restored, should the 19th-century alterations be removed (and the porte-cochère shifted away as a garden pavilion) to take the room back to its condition at the time of its builder’s death in 1740 or do they have integrity as evidence of the development of the house? Powerful arguments can be marshalled on both sides and, at least, the issues are relatively clear cut. What happens with more nuanced discussions about changes to the plan and circulation arrangements made in the 18th and 19th centuries to the original design or with later decorative schemes? These considerations graduate almost seamlessly into the questions of how the rooms should be furnished and presented in the future.

The problem for the Trust will be that, in each case, the issue will need to be painstakingly discussed and agreed on some notionally objective assessment of ‘significance’. All this in an environment in which there will inevitably be someone who sees significance in practically everything. Ultimately, the Trust has to upset someone; the challenge will be to formulate a clear perspective that answers the offence, otherwise, it will simply end up annoying everyone. It is salutary to think of how different these problems would look if there was an owner whose tastes, delight and interest could arbitrate in such discussions (none of these words, of course, have a bearing on ‘significance’).

Another decision that is being left to the future is the whole arrangement of the setting. This is unfortunate, not least because the one authentic surviving element of the building is the exterior. Hopefully, the project will catalyse major changes to the present arrangements, all effectively inheritances from the way the property was taken into the Trust’s care 70 years ago with only a tiny amount of associated land. As a result, visitor facilities were crammed into the house, a modern road cut past the house to serve a garden centre and visitors approached not through the historic park, but from the rear of the building. For the future, and through negotiation, surely the house should be approached down the front drive through its Capability Brown park?

It would be unfair only to sketch out the problems presented by this ambitious undertaking. The restoration work to the house promises to be of enormous popular interest and the Trust is already prepared to harness this. The interior house was opened up just before Easter, with protected walkways offering access to some of the principal ground-floor rooms. This has already attracted large numbers of visitors. The restoration of the rooms will also provide invaluable experience for developing a new generation of skilled craftsmen. The actual process of the work will be a force for good and deserves to garner much attention.

However, the time will come when the contractors leave, the scaffolding is dismantled and Clandon begins life as a renovated building. When the reopening comes, the question will remorselessly return: to what purpose has the Trust restored this building? One answer will be supplied by the photographs published to celebrate the reopening. Will they illustrate the re-created Palladian interiors or the new conceived spaces in the house? Will they see the value of the house in terms of its history or its future? There is no right or wrong answer, because both should seem important, but the emphasis will be significant. Hopefully, too, the problem of the building’s setting will have been resolved as well. If so, visitors will once again be able to grasp the combination of landcape, architecture and art that made Clandon – and English country houses generally –  such a magnificent and compelling creation.

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One thought on “The National Trust portfolio & Clandon Park

  1. Excellent, far-reaching, article. Your observations on the National Trust brand and how the heritage ‘offering’ is often dumbed down really strike a chord and, frankly, the attitude of some of their staff is irritating (whereas English Heritage are usually the opposite). Bill Bryson said something about the Trust having an over-inflated sense of its own importance, or something, which I think is spot-on. That said, dumbing down is not unique to the NT (I find it in some museums too) some staff and volunteers are simply wonderful and, of course, where would Britain’s heritage be without it? The Clandon debate is a whole different conundrum! Best regards, Mike.

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