Sadly, there was a serious fire at Clandon Park over the afternoon and evening of Wednesday 28th April 2015. Many of its contents are lost forever and there remains a serious doubt as to whether the house itself will be rebuilt. My heart goes out to the staff and volunteers for whom the sight of the burning building must have been doubly distressing. I am glad that I got to see Clandon in all its glory but re-reading my report below is somewhat bittersweet. I will add further details of any significant developments if and when I hear them.
I was going to cheat and use a photo of the rear of the house for my introductory picture, something that I previously did for my Ickworth entry because the front view was marred by a large marquee. This time, it wasn’t something spoiling the view but something enhancing it, as the rear facade of the house can currently be viewed across a beautiful expanse of spring daffodils. I decided I’d better use the front view with its slightly ugly (in my opinion) porte cochère, added in the 1870s, but I couldn’t deny you the daffodil version so here it is below.
Now, Clandon let me down a little in that there were no introductory talks available to ease me into the history of the place. As a result, the multitude of baronets, barons and earls of Onslow who have owned the house since 1641 remained something of a mystery until I got home and embarked on the challenge of the 96-page guidebook. I did have a little time to start this process while sitting outside the shop waiting for a hailstorm to blow over, but I got no further than Richard, the 1st Baron Onslow, who was apparently known to his parliamentary opponents as ‘Stiff Dick’. Oh, how the English language has changed since the 17th century!
This same Richard was the second member of the family to be Speaker of the House of Commons (the first was his great-great-grandfather, an earlier Richard, known as ‘The Black Speaker’) and there was later a third in Arthur Onslow, the 1st Baron’s nephew, who became known as ‘The Great Speaker’. According to one of the room guides, the Onslows are the only family to have ever produced three Speakers and one of Clandon’s rooms, the Speakers’ Parlour (mainly used as an everyday dining room) is something of a shrine to this part of the family’s history, housing portraits of all three gentlemen. In fact, Richard, our 1st Baron, was the only one of the three to ever live at Clandon but you can’t blame them for commemorating their family’s successes.
The Onslow family history from the Black Speaker to the present (7th) Earl takes up 34 pages of the detailed guidebook so you’ll need to get your own copy to sort them all out. However, there are a few others that are worth mentioning. It was the grandson of the Black Speaker, Sir Richard Onslow (yes, I know, there are a lot of Richards, but I did warn you that it was a minefield muddling through this lot!), who originally bought Clandon into the Onslow family in 1641, although he didn’t live there himself so his son Arthur was the first Onslow resident. Sir Richard died ‘by some hurt… he received from lightning’, which is perhaps one of the more unusual demises in the family’s long history. The 2nd Baron, Thomas (breathe a sigh of relief folks, it’s not a Richard), is attributed with hiring Italian architect Giacomo Leoni to build the Palladian-style house that stands at Clandon today and who also took on Rysbrack and Artari to put together some stunning interior decorations.
The last Onslow I want to mention is William Hillier Onslow, the 4th Earl (just to confuse things further, the Earls took over from the Barons in the 1800s!), who had an illustrious career in the Government and had close ties to New Zealand, serving as Governor of New Zealand for four years from 1888. The Maori Hut in the grounds – called Hinemihi – was something that Hillier brought back from New Zealand and is a real rarity in this country (and a perfect place to shelter from the rain as I later noticed when looking out at it from inside the house!). I’ve already seen several shepherd’s huts in my NT travels but I’m pretty confident I won’t stumble over another Maori Hut in any of my remaining 230 or so visits.
In honour of Hillier’s exploits in New Zealand, Clandon is in the process of converting an upstairs room into a small museum exhibiting some of his finds and on the subject of museums, one of the smaller corner rooms downstairs features exhibits dedicated to Clandon’s time as a military hospital in WWI when that particular room was used as an operating theatre. War enthusiasts might also be interested to know that Clandon was later used in WWII to house valuable archives from the Public Records Office in order to protect them from the bombing in London. And this is probably the perfect spot to mention the Surrey Infantry Museum, which is located in the basement of the house near the shop and restaurant. Personally, military history isn’t really a big draw for me so I have to admit I wandered around quite quickly, just so I could tick it off, but I am sure anyone with an interest in this theme will find the museum fascinating. It runs through the history of the Surrey regiment conflict-by-conflict and has a very impressive display of medals, in cabinets and drawers, with a touch-screen database also available.
And so onto the contents of the house. One of the key highlights for most visitors (including yours truly) will be the first thing they see, namely the Marble Hall. It lives up to its name, with ornate marble fireplaces and columns and a stunningly carved plaster ceiling. Clandon helps you out with the ceiling by offering a slanted mirror on a trolley so you can wheel it around and look at the detail without getting a crick in your neck. The Hall is a 40-foot cube so the size simply adds to the overall impact on entry. It is also the only room in the house where you can take photographs, although I have to say that pictures can’t really do it justice.
My wildlife antennae were immediately on alert in the Hall where there are two noticeable Francis Barlow paintings on the wall opposite the entry: one of an ostrich and one a cassowary (see left). Touring the other rooms, you’ll find that birds are a common theme throughout. In the State Dining Room, there are further paintings by Francis Barlow, in which birds are a prominent feature, while the Oak Staircase sports a striking carved wooden finial of a bird of prey just about to tuck into a smaller bird. But it is Mrs Gubbay’s collection of 17th and 18th century Chinese porcelain birds that is perhaps most notable. Mrs Hannah Gubbay was a member of a very rich Jewish family who pulled together an impressive collection of furniture, mirrors and porcelain during the 1920s and 30s. She bequeathed everything to the National Trust in 1968 on the condition that it was displayed as a single collection in her name. Clandon Park was short of contents following various divestments by the Onslow family over the years so it was thought to be a perfect site for the Gubbay collection. Her birds are a particularly attractive addition to Clandon Park house where they perch on numerous brackets and shelves.
One other item worth mentioning is the Clandon State Bed, which was made in about 1710 and I overheard a volunteer say that it is the only item of furniture to have featured in the old Tudor version of the house before the Palladian building was constructed. So I decided not to jump up and down on it or start a pillow fight.
Well, that’s my summary of Clandon Park, although I still have a large part of the guidebook to read so I’m sure there’s plenty more to find out. For now, I’m just glad I’ve finally managed to finish this entry. So far, I’ve had to break off twice to go and open the door to an RNLI collector and a member of the local Horticultural Society asking for subscriptions. The next uninvited visitor looking to drag me downstairs again is going to get the Clandon guidebook thrown at them out of the window… and let me tell you, a direct hit with that is gonna smart a bit!
Highlights: The Marble Hall; the daffodil meadow; the birds!
Refreshments: None (I was actually gasping for a cuppa but I hit the lunchtime crowd and while the menu looked appealing the queue into the corridor certainly didn’t)