A month ago to the day, a huge fire ripped through the fine Palladian Mansion of Clandon Park. In terms of our cultural heritage, it is a tragic loss of art and architecture. For those of a cultural bent, and in particular for those with a love of the 18th Century, April 29th 2015 was a very dark day. As the dust settles, attention will undoubtedly turn to the future.
Much has been saved- be it through protected archives, robust emergency plans, fire service heroism or sheer bloody luck. The Speakers Parlour- one of the most important interiors, has been saved. Art and artworks have been rescued. There is much to be grateful for.
Much thought will naturally now focus on what happened, how it happened, and what happens next. The answer to this last question will be a critically important one. Not just for the house and its collection, but for the National Trust- as one of our countries most important landowners, institutions, and cultural custodians.
The National Trust answers the question “how do we manage decline” in many ways across many properties. Sometimes its answers are dogmatic. Rigid. Sometimes they are poetic or picturesque. Regardless, all of its answers are considered, intelligent, and appropriate to their setting.
A question the NT answers less frequently (thankfully), is how do we manage rapid destruction and almost total ruin. We are lucky to live in a cultural climate that gives such careful philosophical thought to these issues- not least by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and its amenity society offspring.
A full restoration of the property is the immediate and obvious response to this challenge, but it brings questions of its own: Is the reconstruction of a Georgian interior disingenuous in the 21st Century? Is this an “honest” approach? Does it tell the story of the devastating fire within its new layers? Is the fire relevant enough an event to warrant a presence in the building’s new narrative? Is it cost effective?
Might the ruin of fire become the new reality for the building? Where only what remains is carefully consolidated, gently cleaned, and sheltered from the elements? What exactly would one be repairing with this approach? The fabric alone? What about the lost sense of the house? Its grandeur, its dignified exteriors, its rich interiors? How might one honestly repair the atmosphere of a place?
Without the National Trust, what might have happened to a house like this anyway? What does the National Trust fundamentally stand for, and how might this be embodied in what happens next at Clandon Park? How has the building been working most recently? Is the fire an opportunity to enhance these services?
This is such a small reflection on what happens next at Clandon Park. But what happens next will say so much about our collective cultural conscience. It will make a statement about the National Trust, and of course it will make a statement about the house itself. This is a deeply sad loss, a huge challenge, and an extraordinary opportunity. I look forward to seeing what happens next.