It’s been almost a year since my adventure among the country houses in England. The recent fire at Clandon Park in Surrey, plus the weekend spent with a friend from last summer, made me wistful for the grueling, yet exhilarating days of an Attingham scholar. The first country house (outside of our lodging at the lovely West Dean) we visited was Uppark, also the victim of a devastating fire.
Sussex is home to a great deal of country houses, most carefully situated in the gentle folds of the Valleys of the Downs – but not Uppark. Like its name suggest, the “park” is “up” on the downs, rather than in the valley below. The setting of the house commands incredible views, both for looking out and for looking at the house as one approaches – but over time, the lofty vantage point has proved incredibly troublesome, especially when it comes to water supply.
Owned and managed by the National Trust since 1954, Uppark is an amazing story of restoration and reconstruction, due to a 1989 fire that destroyed the upper floors of the house and caused extensive damage to the ground floor. Many of the furnishings were saved (and thankfully insured), enabling the National Trust to rebuild and present the house much as it had been historically.
The decision to rebuild the house, and reconstruct the interior finish was an expensive undertaking, but one that put the skills of many talented craftspeople on display. A large number of the conservators who worked on the six-year Uppark project trained at West Dean College. The sheer intricacy of the woodwork, plaster, metal, and stucco details that were recreated is astonishing. An account of the restoration project by Peter Pearce (then the National Trust’s Managing Land Agent for its West Sussex properties, now Chief Executive of the Edward James Foundation at at West Dean) presents some dramatic photos of the fire damage.
The human stories of Uppark are not forgotten in the interpretation of the house, even for a group that included many conservators and curators. Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, the owner of Uppark, married his young dairy maid when he was rather advanced in years…and a young H.G. Wells spent a portion of his childhood at Uppark while his mother was housekeeper. (Long before Sir Harry enjoyed wedding bliss with his dairy maid, his mistress was Lady Emma Hamilton – she of Lord Nelson fame.)
Although Attingham unfurled at a furious pace, with grand houses, splendid landscapes, impressive professionals, and lectures (and let me not leave out mention of champagne and wine on the terrace of many a fabulous country house at the end of the day), Uppark stood out not only for being our first stop, but also for the administrative decisions made to restore the house, and the labor involved in that process. No other country house illustrated that side of the preservation/conservation world – and I know the National Trust must be thinking of Uppark as deliberation begins at Clandon Park. As a 1993 article in the Independent stated, “Uppark Revisited demonstrates the legal and financial might of the mature country house conservation movement.”
If only we had a little bit of that might on our side of the pond…it would make Preservation Month that much better!