Calke Abbey's collection
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. Like the house itself, some of the items within are grand and lavish, while others are modest and reflect the gradual decay of Calke Abbey. Here are some highlights to look out for on your next visit – from a vast natural history collection to the remarkable State Bed.
Calke’s collection of contrasts
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 silk hangings of 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 abandoned rooms, preserving the fragile atmosphere of quiet decay.
The natural history collection
One of the most notable collections you’ll discover as you enter the house is the natural history collection – one of the largest of its kind in the National Trust.
Calke’s 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.
The State Bed at Calke Abbey
A remarkable item in Calke’s care is the State Bed, with its embroidered Chinese silk hangings, which are in near-perfect condition.
The State Bed hangings were thought to have been a gift to Lady Caroline Manners on her marriage to Sir Henry Harpur in 1734, although when the National Trust came to care for Calke in 1985, the hangings were found perfectly preserved inside a chest. It’s possible that they were never used.
The State Bed hangings are now on display in the house, a must-see as you explore both grand and abandoned rooms inside Calke Abbey.
Carriages and historic vehicles
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.
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. Take a peek behind the Stableyard doors to see glimpses of these historic vehicles.
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