The Palladio Room on the ground floor of Clandon Park is named after Andrea Palladio, the Renaissance architect whose work inspired generations of Englishmen including the Earl of Bolingbroke. The Earl based his own Chiswick House on Palladio’s Villa Rotonda at Vicenza . The room at Clandon Park conforms to Palladio’s rules as to the perfect proportions for domestic interiors. The set of Mortlake tapestries in the Saloon used to be hung in here. The silk wallpaper dates from the 1780s. It was made by the French manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon. The latter began his career importing English wallpapers, which were much admired by the French aristocracy of the time. Later, Jean-Baptiste began to manufacture luxury wallpaper in his own right. Unfortunately both his factory and his home became one of the earliest targets of the Revolutionary mob in April 1789, forcing him to flee abroad with his wife and children. Undeterred Réveillon settled in England, where he was able to rent out his business to Jacquemart & Bénard, who continued producing his wallpaper under licence until the 1840s.
A sprung floor was installed in the Palladio Room so it could be used as a ballroom. The 1814 Broadwood piano is not original to the house but on loan. It is believed to be an exact copy of one which was presented by the Broadwood company to Beethoven. Like the great composer, I too am somewhat deaf, but unlike Beethoven I have always been rather tone deaf to boot.
The official guidebook fails to mention the small bronze of a discus thrower from the Classical world but it does make reference to the charming portrait of three young girls in pink, yellow and grey silk gowns playing with their pug dog.
With the afternoon sun streaming through the window, I loved the simple elegance of the Morning Room with its pale yellow walls and white marble fireplace. Mrs Gubbay’s porcelain birds on their gilt rococo brackets ruled the roost here too. The pictures included various aristocratic women who had either been born into or married into the Onslow family. These included Violet Bampfylde who married the 5th Earl of Onslow. In her portrait by Philip Alexius de Laszlo she is shown looking very soignée in a black velvet sleeveless evening gown and clutching a long strand of jet beads in her hand. Another woman bucks the trend for formal attire and is shown dressed in a green jumper and a tweed skirt. I think this may have been the formidable Pamela, who married and later divorced the sixth Earl, Violet’s son. Pamela did not adopt the dilettante life of a lady of leisure following the collapse of her marriage. Instead, in the early 1970s she became embroiled in a notorious counterespionage affair involving the self proclaimed M16/Official IRA double agent Kenneth Littlejohn. Later, in September 1975, Lady Pamela and a company secretary narrowly avoided serious injury when the detonator of a letter bomb, as opposed to the bomb itself, exploded at their Mayfair offices. The deadly device had been concealed within a hollowed out copy of a Walt Disney book on Pinocchio.
Next to the Morning Room, the Oak Staircase with its 1720s balustrade and 19th century heraldic shields was declared out of bounds. At the foot of the staircase stood a 6 frame Oriental lacquer work screen and a life-size plaster copy of Antonio Canova’s “Three Graces”. I sometimes wonder if the enduring popularity of this work relies on the fact that it offers three female nudes for the price of one.
I found the black marble fireplace, the imitation 1720s style old gold block wallpaper, the heavy dark furniture, the red velvet curtains and the prominent gilding in the Speaker’s Parlour oppressive and I was tempted to hurry from the room. But an elderly guide, as if sensing that he was in the presence of the Brimstone Butterfly with many dauntingly blank pages to fill on her website, was keen to tell me more about the house for which I am grateful. Had it not been for him I would not have noticed the four faces in bas–relief faces in the ceiling above the dining table. The faces showed the decline of a man from vibrant youth into decadent old age. Given that I was in the Speaker’s Parlour which commemorated the three Onslow men who had been appointed Speaker of the House of Commons, I had gamely assumed that the stout wooden stick with its silver finial served as their ceremonial mace of office. The guide said it had actually been used for a less exalted purpose by the household porter to announce the arrival of guests at Clandon Park. If ever I return to the mansion I shall be sure to look out for the portrait of Elizabeth Tulse, the wife of Speaker Richard Onslow, nicknamed Stiff Dick by fellow Parliamentarians. Overcome by grief upon his death, she drowned herself in a pond at the Old Palace Croydon.
I next made my way to the Library. The white marble overmantle contained a painting of Arthur Onslow the third member of the family to be made Speaker of the House of Commons and deemed the most distinguished, The book cases were painted white as at OsterleyPark and presumably for the same reason: to reflect as much light back as possible. One of the armchairs in the Library had drawers attached so that books could be placed inside. The Victorian three piece fire-screen was inlaid with mirror and family photographs. A guide pointed out the elaborate white plaster frame inlaid with a looking glass and decorated with grapes, fruit and cupid. I think she had been rather suspicious of me earlier as I searched diligently for the concealed door within the bookcase and studiously wrote down notes as if I were casing the joint.
A small display cabinet contained a Victorian account book, the open pages of which detailed wages received by servants at Clandon Park. In 1876 servants received free beer plus their washing as part of their remuneration. A footman, in addition to wages, was given silk stockings, gloves, pumps and one pound one shilling a year for powder with which to dress his hair. The display cabinet also revealed that a member of the Onslow family had been involved in the Mary Toft affair, a sensational scandal of the 1720s when the aforesaid Mary of Godalming claimed to be giving birth to rabbits. Thomas, the 2nd Baron Onslow had the wit not to be taken in by such an implausible story. The same could not be said for many others, including one of the royal physicians. The story ended with Mary’s ruse being exposed. It was a scandal that many of the duped were anxious to forget and Mary was allowed to quietly sink back into obscurity.
The next room on the tour is the Onslow Museum. I disliked the stuffed fish and birds in their glass cases, much preferring the porcelain variety championed by Mrs Gubbay elsewhere in the house. Far more poignant was the flax and Kiwi feather Maori chieftain's cloak that the baby Victor Alexander Herbert Onslow, second son of the 4th Earl, had been wrapped in when presented to the Ngati Huia people in New Zealand. This same cloak was draped over Victor’s coffin when he died at the age of thirty-one in 1922.
The red walled State Bedchamber boasts another plaster ceiling, this time on the theme of Love with a representation of Venus surrounded by cupids and roses. A number of the occupants of the bed below were beyond even the ministrations of Venus when the four-poster was used for the lying-in-state of various Earls. I wonder if the illustrious Onslow guests were ever aware of the dual purpose to which the state bed was put? Onslow family tradition has it that the most famous guest to stay in the State Bedchamber was the tragic Princesse de Lamballe. Unlike her fellow compatriot the wallpaper manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, the Princesse failed to escape Revolutionary France alive. Seen as a close friend of the despised Queen Marie-Antoinette, the hapless woman was released by the authorities straight into the hands of a vengeful mob.
Having engaged in a lengthy conversation with the guide in the State Bedchamber he suddenly asked me if I were a lawyer. He considered himself a good judge of people and thought I had the air of an orator. Sadly, I had to admit that despite being the daughter of a barrister, my time in court as a Legal Eagle has been limited to representing an elderly pensioner in a county court.
The walls of the plain but spacious Stone Staircase were decorated with paintings of dogs, farmyard animals and horses. Just off the top of the Stone Staircase was another, sweet little red carpeted wooden staircase which led to the upper floors.
At this stage I realised I had neglected Reshna for far too long and hurried through the remaining rooms. As a result I did not pay much attention to the contents of the Blue China Room and so failed to notice the portrait by Whistler of that indefatigable porcelain bird fancier Mrs Gubbay. I only had eyes for the 4 bedroom 19th century doll’s house sitting in a corner. One of the two bedrooms had furnishings which included a stripped hat box, an oil lamp, a chamber pot and a canopied bed. The dolls’ house also boasted a fully equipped kitchen and parlour.
The yellow walled State Dining Room was given over to an exhibition on the 17th century artist Francis Barlow, whose canvasses of birds I had first cone across in the Marble Hall. Two more large scale canvasses were also displayed in the State Dining Room.
The most remarkable feature of the Green Damask Bedroom is that it is in fact red, the original red flock wallpaper having been rediscovered in the 1970s.
There is a further unnamed room with plain white walls and ceiling and a simple white marble fireplace housing an exhibition about Clandon Park during the war years.
Leaving these rooms for the Marble Hall Gallery, I espied Reshna purchasing a raffle ticket.
“Where did you get that hat?” squealed a young woman with excitement as she caught sight of me, whilst in the act of handing Reshna a ticket. Despite its venerable age my large brimmed straw hat still draws admiring glances.
Now that I had caught up with Reshna we walked along the Marble Hall Gallery together. As I took the opportunity to take a closer look at Artari’s spectacular stucco ceiling, my friend admired the antique china arranged in cabinets along the wall.
We then descended down the Stone staircase to the basement. Only the flagstone floors, the 19th century kitchen ranges in the National Trust shop and the extant and exacting Board of Rules for the Servants' Hall revealed that this had once been the servants’ quarters. As at Ham House and the Royal Pavilion Brighton, a few leather fire-buckets still hung from hooks on the walls.
I had time for a very quick tour of the military museum, devoted to 350 years of the Surrey Infantry before hurrying back to the railway station. Inspired by our visit to Clandon Park and relishing the prospect of further jaunts around the countryside, Reshna joined promptly joined the National Trust, a costly decision given her then unknown decision to return to South Africa. Stoically, Reshna regards her membership fee as akin to a personal contribution and so does not begrudge the cost. I shall miss her lively conversation and entertaining company and wish her and her family my most sincere wishes for their health, wealth and happiness and may we both live to see better times.