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Dragon Interview: Lord Onslow On Proposed Clandon Restoration Plans

The proposals to restore Clandon Park after the devastating fire in April 2015 are, judging by some reactions, tendentious. One of those most closely affected by the plans, for what is his ancestral home within a park that he still owns, is the Earl of Onslow. The Guildford Dragon asked him for his views and he responded by offering some interesting insights and an original alternative. The interview was conducted by Martin Giles

Rupert Onslow, the 8th Earl of Onslow

As the leading member of the Onslow family whose ancestral home Clandon Park is, do you feel that you were sufficiently consulted over the restoration plans?

In July [2015], following the fire, I wrote a paper suggesting what the family and I would support and it basically said that to be objective, the concept of rebuilding would be lunacy economically, but the family would support a full restoration, obviously, and categorically would not support a glass box modernist interpretation.

In answer to the question, “Was I consulted?” I thrust my views upon them by sending my views to the National Trust’s director general, the chairman, and a few other people, and I suppose they would now say: “Well, we know what his views are so, therefore, there was no point in dragging him in to a load of meetings to hear him repeat himself.”

I thrust my views upon them…

What I will say they have done is that the project director Paul Cook, who is someone I like enormously and who is doing a very good job in a difficult environment, keeps me informed. So, they don’t invite my views but that’s because I have already given them and they do keep me informed, moments before something is about to occur. We meet regularly, at least every quarter, to discuss where they are and what they have got to.

Obviously, there is information they can’t share prior to it going properly public.

We can all have emotional attachments to family homes but you didn’t ever live in Clandon Park House, I believe?

No, before I was born, when my teenage father moved out in the 1950s, he sat in the Marble Hall and cried, knowing that the Onslow’s would never be back in that house. But I still do feel an unbelievable attachment to the house and I have driven past it every day, while living at Clandon. When the fire happened I stood on the lawn and I was shocked at how emotional I was about a building I had never lived in. Watching it burn was extraordinary.

Firefighters tackling the fire at Clandon Park on April 29, 2015.

There is something bizarre about the English and the idea that “our house is our castle”: it’s in our psyche, whether our home is a tiny cottage or an enormous palace, especially if it represents family roots.

I was shocked at how emotional I was about a building I had never lived in. Watching it burn was extraordinary.

Of course, Clandon was never a “home” only. It was an office, a place for corporate entertaining… all these big houses were not homes as we understand homes now, with 2.5 children a dog and one and a half cars, or whatever. The whole business and the politics were run from these places and the private apartments within the house were the home.

Are there any aspects of the proposal that you like or particularly dislike?

I spoke to Paul Cook when he said that they were about to release the concepts in the summer and I told him that my opinion had not changed in terms of what I would want personally. But it is not our house anymore. Nonetheless, I considered how the National Trust members would best benefit, something I have always wanted to contemplate and articulate. One reason I think that they shouldn’t rebuild Clandon is that it isn’t the best option for the members.

I said to Paul Cook, “Whatever comes out is going to be amazing and brilliant and we’ve got some very clever architects but I still won’t agree with it because I don’t think it is right.” But the next day what came out was, I thought, 1980s loft-house apartments in the Docklands. It was brushed bare brick with staircases in the air. I said to myself, “These are 30-year-old ideas: there’s no Foster Gherkin, there’s no Roger’s Lloyds building, there’s no Gehry type building.” I just thought it was extraordinarily unimaginative.

“…I thought, 1980s loft-house apartments in the Docklands. It was brushed bare brick with staircases in the air… extraordinarily unimaginative.”

But moving on, I am also aware from my conversations with the National Trust that these are merely concepts, pitched to get the business and may or may not, I don’t know how much or how little, be included in the final design.

Was there any kind of restoration you would have liked to have seen for Clandon Park?

Well, that harks back to the paper I wrote. For selfish family reasons, yes, I would like to have seen the whole thing redone. I have been slightly pitched as a National Trust hater or someone who is having a dig at the National Trust, or at least that is how the story has been spun because it makes a more interesting headline, I suppose.

I don’t hate, or object to, the National Trust, but on Clandon, I think their decision is wrong for a variety of reasons. The trust’s job is not to create the white elephants of tomorrow – that was our job as posh people of 250 years ago. Their job is to preserve, protect and make accessible our heritage, be it natural, be it industrial, be it architectural or art. For them to create huge buildings… for me, that doesn’t come within their remit. So I think for them to do this at Clandon, or anywhere else for that matter, is wrong.

This could allow the trust to acquire another property that needs to be protected and preserved, one that could provide greater amenity for its members.

I also think that because of the space they have at Clandon, which is only nine acres, it is wrong for the members for the National Trust to be spending £30 million, after taxes and fees, on such a small amount of space. The £30m I think is probably conservative because that is what was spent on Uppark 25 years ago.

I cannot believe the insurers, Zurich Municipal, are being as obstructive as has been said. I believe they are likely to be prepared to be flexible about how they pay, ie whether there is a cash settlement or rebuild. This could allow the trust to acquire another property that needs to be protected and preserved, one that could provide greater amenity for its members.

Would that be better for members of the National Trust? Of course, it would. They’d get another property which is sustainable financially, and they’d be restoring and protecting existing heritage rather than creating something new.

But even to preserve the existing shell at Clandon as a ruin would require some restoration work wouldn’t it? And that would have a cost…

Yes, I imagine you’d have to stick in some industrial steels just to create a framework on which to hang it. But, if the insurers agreed, there could still be a considerable sum available for another purchase.

Won’t it be good, though, to see the house brought back to life as an amenity many will enjoy?

I don’t want to take anything from anybody. My view is that if that if they bought a historic place in need of restoration or land in need of preservation that would give more return to the members in terms of amenity and heritage preservation than is available at Clandon.

The TV show Downton Abbey was popular because it showed how people lived from top to toe – not just, “Here is another hideous old painting of an Onslow.” It doesn’t matter, as Downton Abbey proved, whether you are in a posh frock or work clothes, people are interested in human nature, how people lived and how everyone interacted.

See also: Dragon Interview: Clive Aslet – Clandon Park International Design Competition Jury Member and Clandon Park – Earl Unhappy With Winning Restoration Design Concept


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3 Responses to Dragon Interview: Lord Onslow On Proposed Clandon Restoration Plans

  1. Lisa Wright Reply

    December 18, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    Whilst I find it very sad to have lost such a remarkable building, I find Lord Onslow’s comments refreshingly sensible and generous. It’s not often you hear such unselfish, wise words these days.

    I do hope the Onslow family and National Trust find a suitable compromise to this dilemma.

  2. Adam Aaronson Reply

    December 18, 2017 at 11:20 pm

    Lord Onslow’s interesting comments on the flexibility of the National Trusts’s insurers should be considered in the context of his 20 years expertise in the insurance market.

  3. David Roberts Reply

    December 19, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    I strongly agree with Lord Onslow’s views, which I hope Hilary McGrady, its new Director General, will heed. Her appointment is an opportunity to take a completely fresh look at these half-baked plans.

    The National Trust has never come clean about how the fire was allowed to happen, or about the irrecoverable loss of heritage involved. Where is the audit? All we have seen is spin: sob-stories about weddings being postponed and uplifting tales about brave firefighters and trivial objects being saved.

    No-one, it seems, has been held to account for this avoidable cultural disaster. Is it any wonder decision-making about Clandon Park’s future is therefore so casual?

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