Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Clandon Park: Part Two

Clandon Park: East Front
The New Neighbour (NN) and the Brimstone Butterfly inadvertently approached Clandon Park from the back. The austerity of its classical red brick façade was in marked contrast to the brightly coloured Maori meeting hut or  whare which stands, somewhat incongruously, in the grounds.



 According to the guidebook it was built by Aporo Wharekaniwha, the head of a Maori sub tribe the Ngati Hinemihi, in New Zealand in 1881. It was meant to be as much a traditional and sacred meeting place for the Ngati Hinemihi as it was a deliberate tourist attraction for European visitors. The carvings, fashioned from native totara wood, conformed to traditional Maori designs. The Maoris believed that the spirits of their ancestors were housed in the meeting hut or whare and would offer them protection. Five years later their belief was put to the test when they sought sanctuary within it as the nearby volcano Mount Tarawera erupted. Over 100 local people and tourists were killed in the disaster and the local Maori homes were all but destroyed. As a result, most of the Maoris moved elsewhere. Six years later William Onslow the 4th Earl returned to Onslow Park, reached the end of his brief and far from distinguished tenure as Governor of New Zealand. He had been accused of trying to rig elections to New Zealand’s Upper House to favour the Conservative Party, of which he was a member. Slinking back to England, he took with him the remains of the Ngati Hinemihi whare, having negotiated its purchase through a third party. The guidebook is at pains to stress that the people who built the whare were properly compensated. The whare was first sited by the lake in Clandon Park. It was later moved to its present position on the East Lawn by Maori soldiers, who were convalescing at Clandon Park during World War One, when the mansion served as a military hospital. Apparently the whare thatched roof dates from the 1970s. Having only Victorian photographs to go by, restorers mistook volcanic ash piled on top of totara shingles for English style thatch. The whare continues to be used by groups of Maoris today when an annual hangi at Clandon Park is held and traditional Maori food cooked in a pit oven heated by hot stones. The link between Maoris and Clandon Park has thrived in other ways too, as the descendants of those who built the whare have contributed their expert skills and knowledge to rebuilding and restoring the meeting hut in the closing years of the 20th century.
Huia birds. The female has the larger bill
One act of Lord Onslow's that would have endeared him to the Maoris was that he agreed to give his second son, who was born in New Zealand, a Maori name. Thus, baby Victor Alexander Herbert Onslow was given the additional Maori name of Huia, a New Zealand bird denoting nobility. Little Huia was first christened in the cathedral and later formally presented to the Ngati Huia people. The Huia bird, after which young Onslow was named, became extinct in the early 20th century as did its  human namesake. Whilst a student at Cambridge, Onslow had suffered a catastrophic accident in the Alps. One day he had dived into a mountain lake and struck his head on a submerged rock. It left him paralysed from the waist down with reduced use of his arms and hands. Showing a great deal of personal fortitude Onslow went on to carve himself a career in bio-chemistry and genetics, According to his obituary he was also a gifted artist and jewellery maker. Onslow left behind a wife, a fellow scientist, when he died at the age of thirty-one in 1922.

Unlike the Maori whare, the 1740s grotto is far more representative of what one might expect to find in a grand English country garden of the period. Its flint, brick and tufa, the latter a form of limestone, structure used to contain five antiques busts set in to niches within the walls and, more latterly, a plaster copy of Canova’s life-sized “The Three Graces. The plaster copy of Canova’s work can now be found at the foot of the Oak Staircase within the house. The busts have been dispersed elsewhere. The guidebook states that there is a plunge pool behind the Grotto. If it is still there I did not see it.

The gardens had fallen into a decline by the time Clandon Park was donated to the National Trust in the 1950s. Unlike at Syon House or Chiswick House, there is no splendid 19th century glass conservatory to be found in its grounds or large scale formal gardens despite the fact that the celebrated landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown designed the parkscape in the 1780s. The charming parterre to the South was only laid out in the 1970s. There is also a secluded sunken Dutch garden, which is so secluded the NN and I failed to realise it was even there until after our visit. One reason why the 4th Earl had gone to New Zealand to be its Governor in the late 19th century was because he was short of funds and the Governorship was a salaried post. Unfortunately New Zealand was also suffering an economic downturn which resulted in a sharp reduction in the Governor's salary and allowances. The Te Ara Encyclopaedia rather amusingly describes Onslow as being New Zealand’s first “cheap Governor.” Subsequent generations of the Onslow family found it hard enough to maintain the mansion at Clandon Park let alone keep up the gardens as well.

Nevertheless, money was found to fund the construction of a porte cochere, or covered portico, in the 1870s. This allowed visitors to the house to step out of their carriages and into the mansion without being at the mercy of the elements. The addition of the Victorian portico to the 18th century façade is a matter of deep regret for architectural purists as they believe it seriously undermines the original architect’s vision. When viewed from the side, I find myself in agreement. The portico does rather look as if it was simply stuck on to the Georgian façade. 

As we stepped into the pink walled portico, with its small display of metal breast plates, antique guns, animal horns and an ornate lantern, we discovered that the NN needed to walk around the back of the house and buy her ticket from the shop. With my season ticket in hand I, by contrast, could sweep majestically in. At first, I waited for the NN in the portico. One wall had a small plaque dedicated to the memory of Gwendolyn, Countess of Iveagh, who had saved Clandon Park and most of its contents for the nation. Her father-law, the first Earl of Iveagh had used his money to similarly save my beloved Kenwood House, an act of philanthropy for which I shall be forever grateful. Whilst I dallied I noticed the singular door knocker. I did not have a chance to ask about its provenance as visitors were streaming into the house, forcing me to beat a hasty retreat into the magnificent double height Marble Hall, more of which anon.  

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