Conservation & Preservation

The external restoration of Uppark House in West Sussex is virtually complete, two years after the fire which half gutted the building in August 1989

Restoration largest ever attempted by the National Trust

The new English oak roof is felted, battoned, and boarded and by the end of June will be free of scaffolding and slated. Molten lead splattered onto the mellow red brickwork by the intense heat of the fire has been removed, 132 oak modillions supporting the eaves’ gutters have been recarved, and earthenware chimneypots and dormer windows swung into position. Research into the next stage of the reconstruction, the restoration of the interior, is advanced and work will commence this summer.

The romantic 1690s house, set high on the South Downs, was distinguished for its unusual history and perfectly preserved eighteenth-century interiors. The Fetherstonhaugh family who owned it from 1747 filled it with the finest furniture, pictures, and decorative plasterwork then available. The National Trust, which was given the property in 1954, has issued a writ jointly with its insurers against the builders who were replacing leadwork on the roof on the day of the fire. The Trust claims the fire was caused by the negligent use of oxyacetylene equipment and is claiming the cost of reconstruction and the cost of replacing or restoring destroyed and damaged contents. The multi-million pound project is the largest restoration job undertaken by the Trust.

The story of the fire and its aftermath has become legendary in conservation circles. Although the fire destroyed the roof and the upper two floors, the exterior and ground floor were left relatively unscathed. National Trust staff, local volunteers and the Fire Brigade managed to save ninety-five per cent of the valuable furniture and works of art from the ground floor showrooms. Afterwards a huge salvage operation began to retrieve tons of ash and debris from the blackened shell. Stored initially in 4,000 plastic dustbins and then sieved by archaeologists, the rubble revealed thousands of fragments of plaster, stone, wood and metal which are now being used as pattern pieces for computer drawings of the interior decoration. A rescued section of the coved ceiling from the famous Saloon, for instance, has been used to plot the replacement ceiling. It is hoped that some salvaged pieces can be incorporated in the reconstruction.

The Conservation Practice, the specialist architectural firm which is overseeing the work, is using every available high-tech aid to assist in design work. A library of photographs, drawings, and film, a database of all the salvaged remnants, and photogrammetric surveys have all helped to build up a picture of what Uppark looked like in the 300 years before the fire. Its remarkable state of preservation was thanks to the Fetherstonhaugh family which occupied the house for a century and a half. In the days of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, a favourite companion of the pleasure-loving Prince of Wales, Uppark was the scene of wild parties and race meetings, and home to Emma Hamilton, Sir Harry’s mistress. In his dotage Sir Harry shocked county society by marrying his dairymaid but it was her devotion to his memory that took the house untouched through all the changing fashions of the Victorian era. When H.G. Wells came to stay at Uppark in the 1880s with his mother, the housekeeper, he recorded the unique atmosphere of the house. “It had a great effect on me”, he noted in his autobiography. “It retained a vitality that overshadowed the ebbing trickle of upstairs life”.

The conservation of the contents and fabric of the house has put to the test the skills of a wide range of conservators. The National Trust’s team of experts has been responsible for Uppark’s rescued metalwork, chandeliers, and textiles. Local craftsmen have been brought in to work on the joinery and masonry and to hand carve the oak modillions with a classical scroll design. A Sussex potter, Mick Pinner, has hand-thrown the forty-three replacement chimney pots. To the amusement of the reconstruction team he has inscribed them with diary notes: “Margaret Thatcher resigned as I was making this”; “This one was a struggle, had too many last night”.

Sub-zero temperatures during the winter held up some work on the masonry but all roof timbers, each weighing over a ton, were eventually craned up and manoeuvred into position. Damaged walls were built up to chimney level using original or matching bricks and traditional lime mortar. Charred lintels were replaced and new windows glazed with hand-made glass. The next stage is to rebuild Uppark’s timber floors and then craftsmen will start to recreate the decorative plaster ceilings and walls, cornices and mouldings.

Uppark’s grounds are open to the public every Sunday afternoon until the end of September. The National Trust is planning a series of open days on 17, 18, 24, 25, and 26 August to enable visitors to watch conservation work in progress.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Roof back on fire-gutted Uppark'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 9 June 1991