A collection amassed over time
Calke Abbey houses a vast collection of objects, amassed over time by the Harpur Crewes – a family of avid collectors who never threw anything away. What makes Calke’s collection unique is the way its contents have survived intact and largely undisturbed since the nineteenth century. Among the few lavish, material possesions are vast numbers of household goods and everyday items, which offer a unique glimpse into a vanished era, and an insight into the people who lived and worked at Calke.
A collection of extremes
The Harpur Crewe family were avid collectors over several generations, amassing a huge number of paintings, furnishings, natural history and works of art – but they also never threw anything away, however humble.
As such, Calke’s is a collection of extreme contrasts. Room after room is filled with objects, from cases of antiquities and shining silver, to butterflies and stuffed birds, childrens’ toys and minerals. Some items, like the State Bed, are well preserved, while others reflect the shabby decay of the house itself.
When the National Trust acquired Calke in 1985, a decision was made to present the estate as it was found – including the collection. A matchbox still props up the broken leg of a china pug dog in the Entrance Hall. The rusting metalwork in the kitchen is preserved rather than restored. Dust is allowed to settle in the abadoned rooms, preserving the fragile atmosphere of quiet decay.
A family of avid collectors
The contents of Calke’s collection offer an fascinating insight into the interests and peculiarities of the Harpur Crewe family. While some of the contents were accumulated through obsessive collecting, others were formed gradually and by chance.
One of the most notable collections you’ll discover as you enter the house is the natural history collection. The collection is vast and diverse, with major representations in the fields of entomology, oology, conchology, botany, geology and palaeontology. There’s also a huge collection of taxidermy, particularly bird and mammal specimens, but also fish and reptiles, preserved nests and skeletons.
The natural history collections are largely the work of the last two baronets, Sir John and Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe. By 1840, there were nearly 400 cases of stuffed birds and other animals at Calke. Following the death of Sir Vauncey, much of the collection was sold to meet death duty taxes. What remains at Calke represents less than half the original collection – a remarkable fact, considering the scale of the collection today.
Beyond the house
Calke’s collection isn’t confined to the house, but spans across the entire estate – from the garden sheds to the Stableyard, where a fascinating collection of carriages and vehicles awaits. These fine carriages, still stored in the stables, offer a remarkable insight into the way carriages were used at the turn of the century.
Sir Vauncey is largely responsible for the existence of the carriage collection today, due to his reluctance to accept advances in the motor industry during the twentieth century. While other houses were discarding their carriages and replacing them with cars, Sir Vauncey refused to allow cars on the estate right up to his death in 1924. Guests were obliged to leave their cars in Ticknall village and wait for a carriage to collect them.
Alongside the collection of carriages is the estate’s own hand-pump fire engine, a bath chair which would have been pushed by a servant while the occupant steered the tiller, a children’s goat cart, and a hand bier used for transporting coffins short distances.
A glimpse into the past
What captures the imagination most at Calke is the idea that nothing was thrown away by the family who lived here. The extraordinary accumulation of everyday objects reflects every aspect of life at Calke, from childhood toys to trinkets and souvenirs, walking sticks, notes and labels, broken chairs and much, much more.
The collection, as well as the house and grounds, represent not only a period where many country houses did not survive, but offers a glimpse into the lives of the family whose reclusive nature made Calke what it is today: the house where time stood still.
A different approach to conservation
Although many of Calke’s rooms are seemingly abandoned and dusty, a lot of work goes into preserving the collections. In the more ‘grand’ rooms, the objects are dusted once a week using a hog’s hair brush or soft pony hair brush, and the surfaces are dusted daily. In the abandoned rooms, dust is left to accumulate, to preserve an atmosphere of abandonment.
With so many items in Calke’s collection, it’s inevitable that some objects attract pests. The most common pests we find are woodworm and carpet beetle, which can both be dealt with by the conservation team at Calke. Firstly, a water-based pesticide called constrain is sprayed onto the infested object to eliminate the pests. For persistent or large scale infestations, the object is wrapped up in sealed plastic and put in the freezer. This usually combats the infestation.
Our book cleaning volunteers work through thousands of books so they're ready to be catalogued by a curator. The metalwork team work across the site treating the metalwork, making sure it keeps its rusty, declined look but preventing it from deteriorating further. The sewing team is working through the mammoth task of making covers for the objects in the stable stores, to protect them from dust and bat poo!
Some items are looked after by specialist conservators, such as the textiles and carriages. Usually these objects are repaired, but rarely restored to their former condition. When you visit the un-stately home, you’re helping us to look after the collections, so we can tell Calke’s unique story for many more years to come.