During September 2016 my fiance and myself visited Calke Abbey near Melbourne in Derbyshire for the first time and first impressions of the house were very high as it is set in the most beautiful grounds and which include formal and kitchen gardens.
As can be seen the house itself is a Baroque mansion built around 1700-02 on the site of Calke Priory which had been founded originally around the 12th Century and occupied until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1538.
After the aforesaid dissolution of the priory the buildings left the ownership of the church and after going through a series of different owners eventually it was sold to one Henry Harpur in 1622 and the family connection remained until 1999 when the last of the direct line died although the National Trust took over ownership in 1985 in lieu of death duties.
The first grand house on the land after the priory passed out of ecclesiastical ownership was built by one Richard Wendsley after he acquired ownership in 1573-5 and he subsequently sold it to Robert Bainbridge in 1585 and it was his son who then sold it to the aforesaid Henry Harpur. The Harpur family had their wealth due to a marriage between one Jane Findern and Richard Harpur combined with his employment as a lawyer and judge. It is interesting to realise, as I live in Derby, that the Findern family are the ones connected with the village of Findern just to the south of the city which I know well – the family owned the estates and combine this family land with the land that Richard Harpur purchased near Ashbourne, as the guidebook for Calke Abbey states, the foundations of the estates that supported the Harpur family through the subsequent generations were laid.
The majority of the information in this blog is courtesy of the National Trust guidebook due to its comprehensive nature – it is fascinating to read each and understand fully the history of the house, the land and the family that occupied both and throughout my visits around these great houses I have gained a fuller understanding of the area in which has become my adopted home.
As I read through the history I note a fascinating connection with the last house visit I will be writing up before I submit this course for assessment – it seems that Richard Harpur’s eldest son, John, was also a lawyer who served the greatest family in the Midlands during the Elizabethan age and that is the family known as the Talbots or Earls of Shrewsbury. The 6th Earl Shrewsbury (George) hired John Harpur during his conflicts with his wife who was one Elizabeth Cavendish – the same Elizabeth Cavendish who is better known as Bess of Hardwick of Hardwick Hall. John Harpur was knighted in 1603 and when he died it comes as no surprise to realise he was one of the wealthiest lawyers in the country.
It is Sir John’s son Henry who purchased the hereditary title of baronet in 1626 and the estate eventually passed to his son Sir John and the guidebook notes that both Sir John’s were Royalists during the Civil War in the 1640’s but failed to hold Swarkestone Bridge – one cousin was resident at Swarkestone and the other at nearby Calke and were subsequently fined before retiring from being involved in further conflicts. Due to the Swarkestone John dying without heirs the two branches of the family united once more under the 3rd Baronet (yes also named Sir John – the family used the name along with the name Henry throughout two centuries which I find does get a little confusing if you do not keep track!). The 4th Baronet succeeded to the title at aged just 15 months – another John and it is he who eventually took over the estates aged 20 in 1701.
Sir John (number 4) also married an heiress – Catherine Crewe in 1702 and built the current house at Calke. The old building was hugely extended and remodelled as well as formal gardens being added and also extensive new stables too – what I love most about Calke Abbey is these grounds.
However strangely, despite the wealth of the family, Sir John did not become a politician – it was almost expected particularly as he was High Sheriff in 1702-03. The guidebook points towards a couple of theories – there is an unsociable streak that runs through the family and it is possible he could not stand the thought of the election or there is another possibility that he did not want to compete with his cousin who had been elected in 1701 and 1710 or it could simply have come down to cost as his own High Sheriff office had cost a huge sum at the time and when his son tried to get elected there was another huge outlay which still did not secure the seat.
Sir John’s son inherited the estates and Baronetcy in 1741 and married the daughter of the 2nd Duke of Rutland – Lady Caroline Manners and this marriage introduced him into court circles and eventually the connections meant his election to parliament. However his political ambitions were cut short when he died in 1748 and his son Sir Henry inherited the family seat.
Sir Henry, 6th Baronet decided to naturalise the formality of the Calke estates gardens and also built a riding school with fields and gallops at Swarkestone – from a personal interest point of view I would love to find out where this is as I am a huge horse lover and used to ride myself. Sir Henry did become a successful trainer and breeder.
To take a step back to a personality trait – the unsociability – this makes its appearance with the 7th Baronet, another Sir Henry, who was known to be a loner using a term from my own childhood as he enjoyed solitude. Sir Henry became High Sheriff in 1794 and apparently did what was required of him but then caused a scandal when he not only had an affair with a lady’s maid and an illegitimate daughter but then he married her – I cannot help think ‘if only the walls of Calke Abbey could talk’ because there must have been some stories to tell then!! This marriage meant that the polite society of the time ostracized him – apparently this really didn’t worry him and for that in a modern era I must respect him because it could not have been easy in the social times of his era.
Sir Henry continued to work on the landscape and also added the Grecian portico on the south front of the house with. This addition of the portico meant that the main entrance of the house was through the door seen in my first photograph at the beginning of this blog – you enter through this door into the room which is both an entrance hall and waiting room with the heads of Longhorn cattle on the walls which Sir Henry had introduced to the estate and which are still bred there today.
Sir Henry’s liking for solitude extended to communicating with servants through notes which seems incredible in the modern era. A fascinating fact is that under threat of invasion he recruited a troop of soldiers and then commissioned Joseph Haydn to write two piece of music that they could march to – the original engrave printing plates are still at Calke and are unique in any country house in England.
Sir Henry eventually died in a carriage accident and so the title and the estates were inherited by his son Sir George Crewe who he had banished during his education and for several years afterwards. The estate was in total disarray and the tenants living and working in appalling conditions and Sir George improved all aspects immediately. It is Sir George who rebuilt the church on the estate along with that at Ticknall and also built new schools and chapels in the surrounding areas. There is no question history remembers him as a politician in support of parliamentary reform and it seems he did much good for the people of his communities but the sociability of Sir Henry was to be replaced by the unsociable gene once more that ran in the family with the 9th Baronet – Sir John Harpur Crewe.
This Sir John is responsible for the start of the collection of taxidermy which in truth my fiance and myself found a little overwhelming – the house is literally stuffed full of it and we were not alone in our feelings as we heard many other visitors say the same.
The gene of unsociability was compounded by the fact that this Sir John married his cousin who was also the granddaughter of the loner baronet and consequentially this eccentricity was to be seen at its height in the 10th Baronet, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe. Sir Vauncey is the man responsible for the feeling that the house has a museum like quality in all the class cases stuffed with everything that nature had – eggs, butterflies, taxidermy animals and birds are just examples. Sir Vauncey was also another man who lived in isolation despite his marriage – his wife it seems dealt with visitors.
Half of Sir Vauncey’s collections were sold after his death to cover death duties – it staggers me to realise that what is in the house is only half as it really is stuffed full!! The estate was inherited by Hilda Ethelfrida, Sir Vauncey’s daughter, who had married Godfrey Mosley.
The house now enters its decline because Hilda changed very little except cars were now allowed on the estate and a telephone was installed but little else. Hilda’s heir was to the son of her younger sister Frances – Charles Jenney who inherited the estate in 1949 who in turn was not really interested in the house and the estate although he fulfilled his local duties. It appears that Charles Jenney had inherited the unsociability of his forebearers although he did also fulfill his duties when he became High Sheriff in 1961 which is when he changed his surname to Harpur-Crewe.
The last family member associated with Calke was Charles’s brother Henry who inherited the estate and as I stated at the beginning of this blog it was eventually taken over by the National Trust in lieu of death duties with the support of the government through the National Heritage memorial Fund.
Calke Abbey differs from the other National Trust houses that I have visited because there has been a purposeful decision to not restore it to its former glory but rather to preserve the house in the state of decline in which it was found – its decline throughout the 20th Century is mirrored by many other great houses but it has clung on and survived due to its underlying wealth and behaviour of the family i.e. the reclusivity of the family with their wealth somehow provided a safety barrier from collapse. The house demonstrates perfectly the decline of the way of life of some of the great families and provides a huge contrast to the houses at Kedleston, Sudbury and even Hardwick and I can understand why the National Trust has chosen to preserve this decline in the way it has although I am not 100% certain it is the right decision.
The original building built by Richard Wendsley was L-shaped it seems and is now part of the east wing of the current house and also the easternmost part of the north wing according to the guidebook and it is possibly that the east wing is build on the foundations of the original priory or its buildings due to being out of alignment with the later wings.
This photograph is from a hallway in this east wing and it is quite disconcerting as you look up it as the walls are not even and the hall not straight so if it was indeed part of the original priory or built on the foundations of one of the buildings it would come as no surprise.
The guidebook goes into detail about the remodeling including the addition of balustrades to the roof in the late 18th century and the Grecian portico – the capitals are of Ionic styling although with smooth shafts as opposed to the fluted ones you would expect.
On the east front there used to be a flight of steps leading up to the original entrance hall which is now the Saloon – this is the original door showing the balcony which replaced the steps in front. The guidebook states that this room may have been a loggia which is a room open to the elements so I question whether the door and windows were there originally and just opened when the weather allowed.
The Saloon is a two story room during the 19th Century it essentially became a personal museum for the family and the National Trust has kept it as such – this is the first room I really was unsure about. I can understand the decision to keep this room essentially as it was used in that period but on the other hand a part of me personally would like a clearer idea of what the room was like when it used originally as the entrance hall – the classical influence is clear with the faux Grecian columns and porticoes which are not just above the doorways but also the fireplace. This room is unmistakably Neoclassical in its styling and has a grandeur that would have looked magnificent as an entrance hall but feels as if the 9th and 10th Baronet’s have ignored the beauty of the hall due to their love of taxidermy and collecting. Sir Vauncey turned the estate into a nature reserve and there is no doubt the abundance of wildlife has thrived ever since but I question whether the National Trust could provide, even, in one corner of this hallway a glimpse into what it looked like before his father inherited the house and used some of the estate wildlife in their private collection.
A note of interest is that the ceiling was installed in the 1840’s y Henry Isaac Stevens, a Derby architect who also redesigned the entrance hall – the ceiling has the Harpur boar carved in the plaster work and this is something I will now be looking for on our next visit. The fireplace in the Saloon was also added during this period so again I question how it would have looked before the glass cases were added.
I have given a brief overview of the history of the house summarised from information in the guidebook which is comprehensive but it is lacking in information about the individual rooms except – there is a leaflet available and information in each of the rooms at the house but I personally feel this should be in the guidebook itself.
Below are some of the photographs I took as my fiance and myself toured the property with a brief information.
The Dining Room is typical of the house in that it is largely unchanged since the late 18th Century and is typical of the Neoclassical period in its styling – it is an elaborate room but also is one I did feel has a welcoming feel about it despite the grand entrance through the classical style columns with Ionic capitals which are out of shot in my photograph.
I really liked the round table with its marquetry detailing combined with the furnishings and you suspect this was a much used room, if not by the reclusive Baronets but possibly by their wives and families.
The Library originates from the time of the 7th Baronet and being a lover of antiquarian books this room held a natural fascination for me. It is obvious here of the family interest in racing due to all the paintings in the room – again this strikes as very much a family room or one which the reclusive owners could hide away in without being disturbed.
As you go around the house there is an air of decay and neglect of times gone by – the house does not feel loved atmospherically but rather that the last owners were disinterested and for me personally I found this incredibly sad because in its day or era it was clearly a very beautiful house although somewhat eclectic.
This room is known as the Boudoir – it was originally part of the principal private apartment until the 8th Baronet refurbished his own private apartment and this because his wife’s Sitting Room or Boudoir.
I have not mentioned the art apart from briefly with the racing pictures because there is simply not a huge amount of information available. Like at Kedleston the owners of the house seem to collect more for their status or alliance rather than the artistic merit of the painters although there are portraits of the occupants or of their great racehorses. Apparently very few works of art were brought back from the Grand Tours although in the Breakfast Room and also the Drawing Room there are some genre scenes by Dutch painters which the 8th Baronet collected through his art dealer.
The furniture throughout consists of typical items that would appear in any large house of the period – my knowledge here is lacking but there is no doubt there are some stunning Regency pieces which warrant another look on our next visit.
From this Boudoir you enter the declining areas of the house including the Schoolroom which was created from the 8th Baronet and his wife’s bedroom around 1860. During World War II army officers used this room whilst they were billeted at the house.
This room really does have the air of dilapidation and it is here you first notice the strong musky scent of damp and notice the decay of the old house everywhere you look and it catches in your throat. When you look around you can however almost hear the voices of the children educated in this room and imagine how it would have looked.
Sir Vauncey’s bedroom is one that was apparently found with literally inches of dust in a wardrobe and also holes in the ceiling and roof which had to be repaired very swiftly when the National Trust took over.
This room was literally abandoned and left to decay.
The room that fascinated me purely for the textiles was Lady Crewe’s Room – the reason for the fascination was the bed covering. The origins of this embroidery are unknown but the opinion in the literature at Calke Abbey seems to suggest it is from around 1890-1910 and in the Revival Embroidery style.
Housemaids and servants were taught to sew purely for functional reasons but the daughters and ladies of the house were taught to stitch decorative items and their own designs with inspiration from portraits and nature.
The work on this bedspread is exquisite and I only wish I had been able to get a much closer look or the lighting was a little better.
The room was last used by Charles Harpur-Crewe right up until his death in 1981.
The bed itself is incredibly beautiful with intricate embroidery and gold-work in stunning colours and it is absolutely right that the National Trust has taken such steps to preserve it.
My photographs have barely scratched the surface with the detail in this house and have only shown about half the rooms which you see on the tour around the property but I have also just wanted to get across the general feel of the place – from entering through grandeur to the preservation of the decline.
I am still unsure over whether this preservation in the decline is right although at the time we visited there was extensive work being done on the inner courtyard areas and the early parts of the house as those were of the highest priority to prevent further decay. From the comments I heard as we toured the house many visitors would like to see some kind of display on how the house looked at its height even if in just one area of each room or in a display of computer generated images.
In the stables there is a collection of carriages which my only complaint is is that the information is not clear enough – it is stuck to one side and in a rather small font which is a shame because there was great interest from our fellow visitors.
The gardens consist of floral gardens, walled gardens, an Orangery that has been partially restored and also Physic Gardens for the cultivation of medicinal herbs and the Upper Kitchen Gardens plus the Gardeners Bothy which in essence is the garden potting shed. I really loved all the different doors which lead from one to another as it felt like you were entering secret gardens and you never knew what you would find. At the time we visited the Kitchen Gardens had a gourd tunnel and also some wonderful large pumpkins growing as well as off in one corner behind a small orchard the relatively new addition of some beehives which were clearly fully occupied.
Overall I find Calke Abbey a place that I really enjoyed but have mixed feelings about – I love the house and the grounds are my favourite of all the ones I have visited during the duration of this course but I am just not sure about whether the preservation of the decline of this great house is the right thing or not but only time will give the answer.
The National Trust. 2016. Calke Abbey. Swindon. Pureprint Group.