Fading Glory Frozen in Time: Calke Abbey

The South Front

The South Front

Many people associate visiting Country Houses with the organisation that has made it one of the nations favourite past-times, The national Trust. With all the excellent work they undertake in acquiring, preserving and opening houses to the public a certain sense of a formulaic approach has crept into their approach. If one is a regular visitor of their houses then it might become a bit uninspiring to encounter a carbon copy gift store, lunch room and set of volunteer room stewards at every house.

With the large portfolio of properties they manage the National Trust has decided to experiment with wandering off their own beaten track. Calke Abbey is the happy result of such an experiment.

Sir Vauncey Harpur's Bedroom

Sir Vauncey Harpur’s Bedroom

The house is billed as “the un-stately home”, and one can understand why. The usual process after acquisition of a property of research, conservation and restoration generally leads to a correction of some of the ‘errors’ that have occurred over time. Be it the removal of an unsightly kitchenette in the corner of a state bedroom, or simply moving part of the contents back to the rooms they were supposed to be in according to archival research the house tends to undergo a change. At Calke Abbey the approach has been very different. The motto here has been ‘repair don’t restore’, and it really works. This is one of the very few places where one can experience a grand house at that pivotal point when the family moves out and it is entrusted to a heritage organisation.

All essential repairs were undertaken to ensure the structural safety of the building and collection. Some passive conservation was also part of the plan, such as the UV foil on the windows. Great pains were taken to document the position of each object within the house and exactly how they were found. What this means is that one gets to experience the house as a physical testament of the struggle of a family to maintain such a grand estate with diminishing revenues, rising labour costs and the loss of social necessity to live on such a scale.

Once the Great Hall, now the Billiard Room, like the rest of the house full of display cases with stuffed animals.

Once the Great Hall, now the Billiard Room, like the rest of the house full of display cases with stuffed animals.

Very little seems to have ever been sold, and the house is full of various collections. The Harpur-Crewe family obviously had a penchant for collecting stuffed birds and animals, as they are present in nearly every room in huge quantities.

An abandoned bathroom

An abandoned bathroom

The upper floor rooms are especially interesting in this abandoned state. As less of the house was being used more rooms were closed off, and many used simply as storage. It is especially within the items in storage that one finds interesting objects that have long since been filtered out of other houses that have gone through the curatorial approach.

Beatiully preserved, the Chinese silk bed hangings of the state bed.

Beautifully preserved, the Chinese silk bed hangings of the state bed.

The ‘repair don’t restore’  mentality was relaxed for one special object within the collection, and understandably so.  When the collection in the house was being documented as it came to the trust an eighteenth century chest was discovered with a unique find inside, the hangings for a state bed. This bed was possibly ordered for George I in about 1715 and came to Calke as a gift from his daughter Princess Anne to Lady Caroline Manners who married Sir Henry Harpur, 5th Baronet, in 1734. The surprising fact is that the chest never seems to have been unpacked, leaving the exquisite hand embroidered silk hangings in an unparalleled state of preservation. A possible reason for the bed never to have been erected in the house could be that none of the rooms has the required ceiling height. But even if this is the case it would be very remarkable, as many beds have been shortened to fit in smaller rooms. To exhibit the bed in a way that would do it justice but also preserve the state its in the National Trust had to deviate from the approach followed in the rest of the house, space was created by heightening the ceiling in a part of the house used by servants and creating a class case for the bed with adjusted light levels. The bed at Calke Abbey is their absolute masterpiece, and worth the visit on its own.

Suspended in time with a stunningly subtle polychromatic display

Suspended in time with a stunningly subtle polychromatic display

The domestic quarters, cellars, tunnels (yes tunnels!) and gardens are splendid in their state of decay, and form a very evocative tableaux. Very little artificial lighting as been added which is unusual when one considers the average age of heritage tourists, and all the more valuable because of it. This is definately not a house that will appeal to everyone, some might think it depressing or ghostly, but luckily there are more than enough places left that offer up the regular museum approach to country house presentation. But if you get what the national Trust tried to do here, and can see why its so important why that story is told, then Calke offers an almost magical experience.

The Orangery

The Orangery