Clandon Park: Ruination or Restoration?

Following last year’s devastating fire, the National Trust have announced that they’ll be rebuilding Clandon.

The National Trust’s plans will see the ground floor rooms, including the Marble Hall and Speakers’ Parlour, fully restored to their former 18th Century grandeur, with the 400 ‘star items’ rescued by volunteers and the fire service back where they belong.

However, with 90% of the total contents estimated to have been lost to the flames, the Earl of Onslow has spoken out against the decision to rebuild what was his ancestral home:

‘Clandon is lost. It’s a ruin now. It decayed instantly. This sad site should be left in peace and tranquillity. The last thing we want now is a replica. If the National Trust wants a replica, let them build it somewhere else.’

He believes that the £65 million insurance pay out would be better used to save Wentworth Woodhouse in South Yorkshire.

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Located near Rotherham, Wentworth Woodhouse is the largest private residence in Europe, with the sprawling Palladian country house boasting 300 rooms and 5 miles of corridors. In fact it’s so large that house guests would leave confetti paper trails to navigate their way back to their rooms. It’s even difficult to fit all 180m of the east front into a photograph! The property hit the news in 2014 when it was revealed that Wentworth had been put on the market for the bargain price of £7 million – but any potential buyer would need to invest around £42 million to tackle the years of neglect, not to mention the spectre of subsidence. Open cast mining close to the house in the 1940s and ’50s has taken its toll and the building is in danger of falling down. It is thought that it was the unsound structure that led to the collapse of a sale to a Hong Kong-based investor, and a trust is now working hard to raise the funds needed to save the house for the nation.

Whilst it would not be possible for the National Trust to divert the insurance money from Clandon to another property, the Earl’s comments raise important questions regarding restoration and ruination. With our urge to preserve sites of architectural importance for future generations are we really just delaying the inevitable and creating poor imitations of historic works in the name of restoration?

When pictures recently came to light of Berkyn Manor in a crumbling state of repair (see images below), my first thought was that the piles of books need cataloguing before the roof caves in! The abandoned property is like a time capsule, having lain undisturbed since the last inhabitant died in 1987, but there is an undeniable beauty to the place, which is perhaps owing to this state of decay, rather than in spite of it. If this, the former home of John Milton, is ‘saved’ by being converted into flats and offices, it will lose its very soul.

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Calke Abbey in Derbyshire is an example of how properties can be preserved in a state of decay and disarray and still be presented to the public. After completing whatever essential structural repairs were needed, the National Trust were careful to replace everything as it was found – right down to the peeling wallpaper. The effect is haunting stasis of a kind Miss Havisham would be proud of, and shows an alternative route for the restoration of country houses.

th5IKN7M16Since writing the above, the controversial restoration of a Spanish castle has reignited the restoration vs ruination debate once more. Believe it or not, El Castillo de Matrera is a 9th Century fortress, but now looks more like a Brutalist concrete cube following restoration. The original stone walls are lost amongst the mass of modern materials, and one has to ask ‘what was the point?’ Why not just have let it fall down and bear testament to the ravages of war and time? Have we lost our enthusiasm for the picturesque fragility of ruins? An article in Apollo by Gavin Stamp entitled ‘Better off Ruined?’ highlights the ‘pleasing decay’ of abandoned architecture and is well worth a read. Of course I would hate to see a building like Wentworth Woodhouse in ruins, but it is clear that there is a line between what constitutes restoration and what ends up a mere re-creation. In the case of Clandon, the National Trust have reached a pragmatic decision in only fully restoring the ground floor, making the most of what they can salvage from this once great house.

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