My reminiscences about my visit to Clandon Park are now tinged with sadness ever since I discovered that my companion for the day, my New Neighbour, (NN) is soon to become my former neighbour now that she has decided to return to her native country. In the short time we have known one another we have become firm friends. Her decision is the right one but I shall sorely miss her.
But, as usual I digress. The double storey white Marble Hall is one of the most magnificent halls I have ever seen. It was never meant simply as a means for visitors to perambulate from one part of the house to another. Instead it was the setting for lavish house parties. The doors to the adjoining Saloon could be flung open to allow revellers access to the gardens beyond. In 1874 the 6th of Duke Newcastle was one of over 100 people who had lunch here. It is thanks to the benevolence of the Duke’s eldest son, who became the 7th Duke of Newcastle in 1879, that the Old Palace Croydon was rescued and given to a group of nuns to establish a girls’ school. It was a miracle that the Duke had any money left to be so generous. Earlier in his life he apparently had to flee England for a spell because of the huge size of his gambling debts. Luckily for him his title attracted a wealthy heiress, thereby resolving his financial difficulties once and for all. Perhaps purchasing the Old Palace on the nuns’ behalf was an act of atonement for his profligate youth.
The very fact that the splendid Marble Hall at Clandon Park got built at all was thanks to an Onslow, like the Duke of Newcastle, landing himself an heiress. This time it was a woman whose family wealth derived from the slave trade and plantations in the West Indies. Two marble busts of blackamoors, set above the entrance door and the doors leading into the Saloon, bear witness to the precise source of the family wealth. Rather like Bishop Juxton’s pews at the Old Palace, Croydon, which likewise display the heads of blackamoors on his family crest, slave owning was not considered something shameful unlike say being in trade. That truly was infra dig.
One of the two marble fireplaces by Michael Rysbrack depicts the Goddess of Hunting with her quiver, arrows and hunting horn. A boar’s head surmounts the broken pediment at the top of the fireplace. The central panel shows a slaughtered deer and boar possibly being offered up as a sacrifice to the gods.
The other fireplace, on the opposite side of the hall, shows Bacchus swathed with vines leaves and bunches of grapes. Two men, one carrying an axe, lead an ox to slaughter. A ram’s severed head has already been placed on a platter. I assume these meats are intended to be consumed by mortals rather than the gods.
A simple bronze bears witness to scenes of unparalleled slaughter in the modern era. During World War One, Clandon Park, like so many other stately homes, served as a military hospital.
Near to the bronze plaque is the escutcheon of a Tudor member of the Onslow family. Given the date and initials it must have been the armorial shield of Richard Onslow, whom Queen Elizabeth memorably described as her “ Black Speaker” on account of his swarthy complexion. Richard was also the first of three members of the family to hold the position of Speaker of the House of Commons over the centuries.
On either side of the doors to the Saloon are two 18th century marble topped rosewood and mahogany side tables.
Above them are paintings of birds by the 17th century English artist Francis Barlow. Two other large scale examples of Barlow’s work are to be found on the yellow walls of the State Dining Room on the first floor of Clandon Park. Although Barlow’s work is also displayed within the Tate Gallery like his great contemporary, the Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar, Barlow is said to have ended his life in abject poverty, a dread fate that can strike terror into the hearts of many of us even today.
The Venetian wall lanterns along with the four 17th century Venetian armchairs and the ornate white and gold Italian altar candlestick were all introduced into the house in the 19th century. Only the wooden hall chairs bearing the Onslow crest are thought to date from when the period when the hall was first built.
What made the Marble Hall so memorable for me was the stunning white stucco ceiling thought to have the work of the Venetian artist Giuseppe Artari. Having missed out on a Classical Education I would not have known that the central panel depicts Hercules and Omphale, the Queen of Lydia. According to myth, Hercules was obliged by the gods to act as Omphale’s personal servant for a year. This would explain why the Queen is depicted holding an olive wood club, his club, in her hand. Omphale eventually decided to free and then marry her erstwhile slave. From Hercules perspective it must have beat clearing the Augean Stables of dung, especially as.the latter had not been cleaned for over 30 years and housed over 1,000 animals, all of whom were prone to producing prodigious amounts of manure. In terms of the ceiling I cannot recall ever having seen such a dramatic representation of “alto-relievo” where a human or animal figure is part projected out from a solid surface. One of the guides told me that he had seen the network of large nails which kept the sculptures firmly pegged to the ceiling. There were two full size antique statues in niches along the wall. Thankfully they were not gilded.
When I first heard of the Marble Hall I was concerned that it might have a funeral air about it. This was far from being the case. The same cannot be said of the black and white marble fireplace in the adjacent Saloon. Even with its erotic overmantle depicting Mars and Venus frolicking in bed, it was still far too gloomy for my tastes. On a more cheerful note a resourceful Countess of Onslow, in a Scarlet O’Hara moment of pure genius, fashioned the red curtains from surplus Canadian Army blankets in 1945. Around the room are hung 17th century tapestries from the English Mortlake factory, established by Stuart kings in an attempt to rival similar workshops on the Continent. The walls of the North Drawing Room at Ham House are also hung with Mortlake tapestries. The ones at Clandon Park depict the 12 months of the year and the various activities associated with them. Thus, for April and May a nobleman and woman are shown are shown on horseback, out hawking, In June and July sheep are sheared and hay scythed. Grapes are trod underfoot to produce wine in August. The stucco ceiling is again by Artari. His original white scheme was painted over in a variety of colours by the Victorians. When the celebrated interior designer John Fowler unearthed the Victorian paint hidden beneath whitewash applied in the 1920s he erroneously assumed he had stumbled across the original 18th century colour scheme and used that as his template for the restoration work. The ceiling contains more examples of alto-relievo with a cupid’s wing projecting out at a most alarming angle. I almost expected it to suddenly break off and smash to the floor. During the 1970s the National Trust erected steel girders above the ceiling to ensure that the alto-relievo remains firmly in place.
The silk damask walls of the Green Drawing Room are hung with family portraits. When John Fowler examined this ceiling in the 1970s, prior to restoration, he once again failed to appreciate that the original design would have been in pure white. Fortunately, only green highlights were added. I have to confess that I found this room rather nondescript.
By contrast I liked the Hunting Room with its mustard coloured walls and collection of 17th and 18th Chinese porcelain birds on rococo giltwood brackets. The birds form part of the Mrs Gubbay Collection and were bequeathed to the National Trust. It took me a surprising amount of effort to discover more about the elusive Mrs Gubbay. Her husband, David Gubbay left her a widow at a comparatively early age. Mrs Gubbay had been born Hannah Ezra in Bombay India and was related, through her mother to the wealthy Sassoon family. After her husband died the childless Hannah did not remarry. An avid collector, she left porcelain, textiles and 18th century furniture to the National Trust. Many of the rooms at Clandon Park have benefited from her bequest and the scale of the mansion has enabled her collection to be displayed to its best advantage. The room itself is not named after Mrs Gubbay’s birds but the three tapestries on the theme of hunting hanging on the walls.
There are still yet more rooms to be seen at Clandon Park and I shall return to the subject anon.