The Clandon fire; thank God for the National Trust

Zak and I are on holiday this week. We’ve just joined the National Trust together, so I was hoping to be writing about our visits in the past week – Scotney Castle in the sun, a beautiful day at Petworth and yesterday’s trip to Bodiam Castle. And later I will. But it is in part overshadowed by waking up on Thursday to the news of this terrible fire at Clandon Park.

You’ll have heard all about it by now – how the house is gutted and perhaps even unstable now without its floors; how an army of firefighters, staff and volunteers managed to save a ‘significant’ part of Clandon’s great collection – a heroic achievement. The loss is huge, particularly for those who knew and loved the house. A friend of mine who lives nearby is in that category. It was somewhere he would go to recharge his batteries, and always feel better for it, whatever mood he was in and however many times he’d already been. When I spoke to him on Friday about it, I could only imagine how he felt. As I would have done, if it had happened to Charlecote Park, or Packwood House, or Hanbury Hall.

I’ve only been to Clandon once – with him years ago – and curiously I remember the famous Marble Hall less than some of the paintings, which really impressed me. I was especially worried for them in the fire because  I remember them being so large and inaccessible. I’d thought that Speaker Arthur Onslow calling on Sir Robert Walpole to speak in the House of Commons by Sir James Thornhill and his son-in-law William Hogarth must have been lost. It was set into the panelling above a fireplace, but I’ve just read on the Trust’s website that it’s among the saved, which is good news.

Speaker Arthur Onslow calling upon Sir Robert Walpole to speak in the House of Commons by Sir James Thornhill (Melcombe Regis 1675 - Stalbridge 1734) and William Hogarth (London 1697 - London 1764)

Equally fortunate is this 1670s painting An Ostrich in a classical landscape by Francis Barlow (c.1628 – 1704), which is quite a feat because it is a hundred inches on a side and – from memory – up the side of a staircase.

An Ostrich by Francis Barlow (Lincolnshire c.1626 - London 1704)

The companion painting of A Cassowary seems to have been less lucky, which is a real shame as it’s a beautiful picture

A Cassowary by Francis Barlow (Lincolnshire c.1626 - London 1704)

Barlow’s vast paintings of A Farmyard

A Farmyard by Francis Barlow (Lincolnshire c.1626 - London 1704)

and A Decoy may also be lost.

A Decoy by Francis Barlow (Lincolnshire c.1626 - London 1704)

And there is no mention yet of Barlow’s rare full-length servant portrait.

A Farm Labourer or Gardener by British (English) School

All images (c) National Trust

The loss in Barlow’s case is especially severe because, with his landscape of Southern-mouthed hounds, these paintings represent the best single collection of one of English painting’s most intriguing and original artists, the first native professional etcher and book illustrator and an unequalled early painter of birds and animals.

But the news footage of chairs lined up on the lawn in bubble-wrap, and a glimpse of a huge great portrait cut out of its frame were heartening. As the National Trust’s Director Dame Helen Ghosh has said: ‘Although the house was pretty well burnt out, the salvage operation rescued a significant amount of the collection. We are hopeful there will be more to recover when our specialists are able to get inside the building and start the painstaking archaeological salvage work. But there is a lot that we will never recover.

‘The immediate sense of shock and loss among staff working at the property has been quickly replaced by a steely determination. The team at Clandon, staff from other properties and local volunteers have responded with tremendous fortitude, calmness and professionalism to the event.’

And praising the efforts of Surrey Fire Brigade and everyone who has helped materially and with words of support, Dame Helen mentions this site for donations, which I hope we will be able to scrape some pennies together for.

There’s been a lot of debate recently about the way in which the National Trust reaches out to its visitors and whether the presentation of some collections is too ‘populist’. The Clandon fire makes these niggles about window-dressing seem very trivial. On my rounds at work I see a huge number of National Trust stickers in car windows, from Volvos to white vans, so one way or another the Trust is doing something right.

The loss of a house like Clandon is a tragedy. But these days it is an exception. We shouldn’t forget that before the Trust gained momentum after the Second World War, country houses were disappearing at a rate of twenty-five a year. By the time Sir Roy Strong staged his Destruction of the English Country House exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974, 1,000 houses had been lost that century. The good work done by the National Trust is incalculable. As well as buildings, a quick check of the Trust’s online collection database shows that they have saved forever the best single museum collection of British historical art and objects. And unlike museum holdings the vast majority of it is on permament display. Not to mention hundreds and hundreds of miles of coastline. I grew up with all of this, coastal walks and going round National Trust houses with my parents. It was what got me into art and architecture in the first place. The fire at Clandon makes me realise just how precious it all is, and what a remarkable organisation the National Trust is. We are incredibly lucky to have them.

Update: I have heard that Barlow’s Cassowary has also been saved, which is wonderful news. It really made my day.

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