Joint 44th AIC Annual Meeting & 42nd CAC-ACCR Annual Conference, General Session, May 16, “Clandon Park – rising from the ashes,” by Christine Leback Sitwell

In the spring of 2012, as a conservation student at UCL, I had the privilege to visit Clandon Park during a field trip. When I heard of the fire that occurred almost three years after my visit, I was shocked and devastated. My attendance to this talk was driven by a personal resonation with Clandon as well as the curiosity and fascination to see an emergency plan in use, despite the circumstances.

A personal photo of a classmate in the marble hall, 2012 and the marble hall post fire, 2015

Christine Sitwell, the Paintings Conservation Advisor for the National Trust in the UK, discussed the emergency response plan in regards to the fire at Clandon Park. The fire started quite small in a basement office on the right side of the building in the late afternoon of April 29, 2015. The fire then rose through the empty elevator shaft, enabling it to reach the lead covered roof and travel across to the left side of the building. Because of this, items and rooms on the left side, albeit still damaged, were not as badly damaged as the right side of the building. It was estimated that the amount damaged and/or completely lost totaled ninety-five percent.
Clandon Park, being under the auspices of the National Trust, has an emergency plan in place. Ironically, five weeks prior, a training procedure involving the fire brigade occurred at Clandon. Christine briefly went over the basics of the plan, including their incident reporting system. The system involves a phone tree, salvage areas to move objects, security, and something called star item sheets. These star item sheets were developed by property staff that prioritize objects as great significance to the property or of great art historical value. They are clear, simple, and to be used by the fire brigade when salvaging items. They are laminated and have two copies, one on the property as well as one in the regional office. Below are the two example slides she provided.
clandon slide1 clandon slide2
Once these objects have been removed from the property, they are moved to designated salvage areas, inventoried, and finally moved to more secure locations. Three of the items salvaged included three paintings that, fortunately or unfortunately, had to be cut from their frames as the paintings in their frames were much too heavy and risky to be removed together. Positively, the frames were saved as well. Clandon has bottom hanging frames just for this reason, the frames hang at the bottom for ease of removal.
Once the bulk of the items are salvaged things are not over. In addition to inventory and conservation, the next issue is security. Christine mentioned that the ease of information through the internet, smart phones, and the press increased risk of theft of items and perhaps more subsequent damage to the building. The emergency plan for Clandon Park includes a communication officer. Their duty is to be the point of up to date information regarding any changes, and updates during and immediately following an emergency. They are the point of contact with the press and the public.
Christine then shared a video diary she recorded during the aftermath of the fire. It included a school that was shut down for two days to help store some of the objects. The video diary is below.
Rescued from the ruins – a video diary of the salvage operation at Clandon Park
More issues occurred because of the many different salvage sites. A collections management system was created in a spreadsheet manner in order to determine the different levels of damage to each object within each salvage site. The building construction was damaged but intact, leaving a shell of a building. The damage was assessed with a 3D laser and the building’s structural stability was able to be evaluated. There were various other methods of surveying the damage, including a drone.
There were also the health hazards associated with the burning lead roof. The burning created about six feet of lead oxide dust and debris inside. The possible risk of mercury and asbestos poisoning was also present. Therefore, admittance had to be regulated and personnel properly outfitted in order to excavate the burnt layers to retrieve small finds.
The final part of the talk was in regards to the future of Clandon Park. It was stated that the General Director of the National Trust will rebuild Clandon Park, but to what degree. There have been instances with other National Trust properties on how they have handled such a large devastation. The options with how to handle Clandon park were to: demolish, maintain as a ruin, restore completely, reinvent for another purpose, or a use blended approach. The latter seems the most likely to occur.
To end her talk, Christine shared another video about the future of Clandon Park. The video can be seen below.
Clandon Park: The Future
Overall, it was intriguing and somber to see an emergency plan being utilized during such a destructive event. I enjoyed the fact that it was not a talk on the development of a plan in case of emergency, but rather the practice of it in the moment. Not only was this a learning experience for the National Trust and everyone involved in the process, I’m sure it meant a great deal to everyone who was present at Christine’s talk. If anyone else had the chance to visit Clandon before the fire, then you are aware of how such a startling loss this has been, not only for the local community, but for admirers around the world.  I am hopeful for Clandon Park’s future.
Further information:
Clandon Park at the National Trust
Our Work at Clandon Park