Next Friday marks a miserable anniversary for 48-year-old Rupert Onslow, otherwise known as the 8th Earl of Onslow.
For it was on that day, one year ago, that he received a panicked phone call telling him that Clandon Park, the magnificent house in Surrey that his family had lived in for over two hundred years, from 1730 till 1956, was on fire.
“Without wanting to be trite,” says Onslow, on the phone from his office at insurers Lloyds of London, “Don’t watch your house burn down, even if it isn’t actually your house.”
The ‘not actually your house’ comment there may need some explaining. Like many old aristocratic families in Europe, the Onslows found the financial burden of keeping up a magnificent stately home impossible with the demise of the last remnants of the feudal system and the post-war rise in wages.
So, in 1956, Rupert’s father, the 7th Earl, gave Clandon Park to the powerful British conservation charity, the National Trust.
It was an inspired decision. The house became one of the Trust’s most visited properties, thanks in large part to the extraordinary Marble Hall—a fantastical, cavernous space clad entirely in ornately carved white marble, and generally recognized to be one of the finest rooms in England.
The Onslows decamped to a nearby farmhouse on the estate, but were able to continue using the house, by arrangement with the Trust, for social and family events.
Says the Earl, “I never lived there, but I had my stag do there, I had my 21st there, my sister’s 18th. So it’s very much part of one’s life without ever having lived in it. So it was not a nice experience in any way to watch it burn. I had never seen anything like that, to be honest. It was ferocious and extraordinary, an extraordinary sight as you are standing on the lawn watching that.”
The blaze—started by faulty electrics—was so intense that few of the contents of the house could be saved.
“Did they have the right procedures in place? Clearly not, because 90 percent of house is gone and 95 percent of the contents are gone. They did everything with the best intentions. But whatever best intentions they had weren’t good enough to protect the art.”
It was fairly clear to the Earl in the aftermath of the destruction that a project to rebuild the house didn’t make sense.
The National Trust, however, disagreed with the Earl and swiftly announced plans to use the insurance payout to ‘partially’ reconstruct Clandon, including the Marble Hall.
Full restoration, according to a report in the Guardian, is only planned for the ground-floor rooms, “where later alterations and additions will be peeled back to its appearance when it was built in 1720, designed by the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni,” while the upper floors will become conference rooms and event spaces.
The prospect fills Lord Onslow with horror.
“I simply don’t get what they are going to have achieved when they have finished. They will have 40,000 square foot of empty building, that isn’t original.
“I don’t think that making Frankenstein architectural monsters is what the National Trust should be doing. They are in the preservation profession not the building trade. They will have nothing to put in it other than random pieces from other places. If they want a conference center, they should go and buy a conference center for much less money.”
Onslow argues that rather than rebuild his family home as a ‘pastiche’, the Trust should leave Clandon as a ruin, and use the payout to purchase other endangered buildings or vulnerable eco-systems.
The National Trust has been arguing that the insurance money from Clandon can only be used for Clandon, but Onslow, who works in insurance, says this ‘categorically isn’t’ the case. (However the insurers, Zurich, recently indicated in a report in the Daily Telegraph that they are prepared to be ‘flexible in accommodating the needs of the National Trust as the final decision about the future of Clandon rests on them.’)
Onslow himself has witnessed the devastation in closer detail than most, as he was recently lowered in a metal cage dangling from a gigantic crane into the burnt-out heart of the Marble Hall.
“I got gently lowered through where the ceiling used to be,” he says. “It was quite harrowing, to say the least.”
Even down the phone line, you can hear the lump forming in his throat.
It was certainly very different from the last time he had been in the Marble Hall, for the wake of his godfather.
“It was one of the great rooms in Britain, but it is gone now. Clandon was that room and the saloon behind it. They were the two rooms in the house. The other rooms were normal, standard, very over-the-top, Georgian rooms. They were rooms that you would find similar versions of in a lot of other places.
“But those two rooms were genuinely extraordinary.
“And now, they are a pile of blackened rubble.
“The Marble Hall was shattered. Virtually every slab of marble is shattered. The two things that are very much alive and well are the two Rysbrack fireplaces, and the National Trust keeps saying, ‘Well, we can rebuild around those.’ But there’s virtually nothing else left on the first floor.”
So does Onslow think Clandon should simply be left as a haunting ruin?
“Yes, I think so. I mean that’s what it is; it’s a ruin, there’s nothing, it’s dead and anything they build now will be a pastiche.”
Onslow suggests the Trust would be better served buying Wentworth Woodhouse, a stately pile in Yorkshire said to be the likely inspiration for Jane Austen’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. It happens to be the largest private house in England and is on sale for a snip at £8m.
“I think, for me, if I was the Trust, I would think that was the most amazing project. And they’ll say ‘Well, we don’t own it,’ but they didn’t own Clandon to begin with, that’s just an issue of who’s got what name on the title deeds.
“It’s 250,000 square feet. So it’s six times larger than Clandon. You could get your arts center, you could get a school, you could get housing, you could get office start-up buildings all set in 80 acres, not nine acres.”
In a statement, the National Trust told the Daily Beast: “When the National Trust took over ownership of Clandon Park in the 1950s after it was gifted by Lady Iveagh, it was declared ‘inalienable,’ meaning it can never be sold or mortgaged. So if we were to leave the building as a ruin we would only recover from the insurer the relatively modest sums involved in the salvage operation and the stabilization of the remaining building. It’s not the case that we could walk away with a payout equivalent to the cost of rebuilding the house and then use it elsewhere.
“That is, however, missing the point. We wouldn’t want to walk away from Clandon. The Trust exists to look after places in our care for ever, and that is why we are committed to rebuilding it.”
Says Onslow: “Ultimately, it’s not our house. So I wouldn’t really expect to have that much more influence than any other member of the National Trust. It’s not mine, it’s not ours, so therefore why would I be able to do anything other than put forward ideas, which I hope will be listened to?
“But no-one can expect me to stop caring about it. It’s ingrained in the DNA.”
And for Onslow, truly caring about Clandon means letting it go, letting it slip with dignity into that good night.