Collectors at Calke Abbey

Yesterday I took a trip to sunny Derbyshire with my Mum and Sister to visit Calke Abbey, a National Trust property tucked away down a long winding drive, near the village of Ticknall.

All images either my own or courtesy of Helen Addyman

We spent a marvellous day exploring the extensive grounds, and my family of avid gardeners especially loved the walled gardens, with their impressive array of fruit and veg lovingly tended by National Trust volunteers. In time honoured fashion we chose the only rainy part of the day to embark on our picnic, which we were forced to polish off from the warmth of the car.

I had been encouraged to visit Calke by colleagues at the 'Victorian Things' meeting of MIVSS at Keele University back in June, who had told me about the huge collections of natural history specimens and taxidermy within its walls...and I was not disappointed.

Taxidermy dioramas in the Saloon
Display case of shells in the Saloon

Many of the specimens are on display in the Saloon, an imposing room at the front of the house, which is lined with cases of taxidermy on three of its four walls, and contains several other cabinets piled high with fossils, minerals and shells. There were also cases displaying a few 'Egyptian curiosities' and assortments of natural and man made items which estate residents sent to the owners of Calke Abbey if they came across something which they thought the family might have been interested in. Cabinets of gem stones and more ornithological specimens are littered throughout the rest of the house, most notably in the 'Bird Lobby' (see below).

Taking a closer look at stuffed Kingfishers in the Bird Lobby
Despite the huge number of items making up the collections, many pieces were lost to neglect over the years, or sold after 1924, when Calke's last great collector, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, died. What remains in the house is only a small portion of what must have, at one time, been a collection which threatened to take over the 100+ rooms at Calke.

Calke Abbey was owned by the Harpur family from 1622 to 1985, when it was passed into the hands of the National Trust, and many of the baronets enjoyed the kinds of collecting often associated with the display of good taste or connoisseurship; Sir John Harpur (4th baronet, 1680-1741) collected fine silverware, for example, and Sir George Crewe (8th baronet, 1795-1844) collected paintings of the Italian renaissance.

It is hard to work out at what point the house began to resemble a private museum. By 1840 there were already almost 400 cases of stuffed birds, quadrupeds, and fishes at Calke, but it is tempting to see the sprawl of the collection as a nineteenth century transformation, since this period seems to have produced Calke's most avid collectors; George's son, Sir John Harpur Crewe, who became the 9th baronet in 1844, and his son Sir Vauncey, who was to become 10th baronet when Sir John died in 1886.

Perhaps this impression is strengthened by the preservation of many of the rooms exactly as they were left in this period; not stately rooms only used for formal occasions, but rooms, once used daily, simply abandoned as the family shrunk in size and used an ever diminishing fraction of the enormous property. An example of one such room on the cold, north facing side of Calke, is Sir Vauncey's childhood bedroom.

Sir Vauncey's childhood bedroom, complete with authentic mess
A helpful Guide explained to us that when Sir Vauncey married in Isabel Adderley in 1876, aged 30, he and his wife would have inhabited a different suite of rooms in the house, and that this bedroom would have been simply left, as it was surplus to the requirements of the shrinking family. Our Guide did suspect, however, looking at some of the dates on the mounted deer heads (with their marvellously self congratulatory plaques proclaiming 'SHOT BY ME'), that Sir Vauncey may have returned to the room on occasion, perhaps to escape from the company of others (he was notoriously misanthropic), or perhaps to add odds and ends to the collections of bric a brac in the room, which include walking sticks, hunting trophies, paintings, toys, and a cabinet of fossils and shells. The room was quite enchanting despite (or because of?) its mess - it was like teenage boyhood had been arrested, and preserved.

The fossils and shells in the room I found particularly fascinating, because despite the similarity of the mid-nineteenth century glass case and its contents to those downstairs in the Saloon, it was arranged very differently. Compare this picture below to the one above of shells in the Saloon (the cabinets with shelves were too dark to photograph, though they were similarly piled high).

Fossils and shells in Sir Vauncey's childhood room, neatly arranged in rows
Whilst there is an apparent absence of labels in both cabinets, the one in the bedroom seems to have been arranged on some logical principles, with similar objects grouped together and displayed in lines and rows. In fact, our guide told us that recently an archaeological 'dig' had been carried out on one of the cabinets in the saloon, with the area divided into a grid with string and items lifted out one by one to uncover the specimens beneath which had been hidden for decades.

There are many tempting narratives to be invented here...I like to think that the collection started with an educational aim, comparison and observation being made easier by careful arrangement of specimens, but eventually the drives to acquire and possess overtook the impulse to learn, and so fossils and shells were heaped on top of one another haphazardly, their mere presence in the cabinets becoming more important than what Sir Vauncey could glean from them. It's all supposition, of course, but the collections at Calke seem to invite these tales of eccentricity. It's also hard not to resist the urge to indulge in some rather crude amateur psychology and read a correlation between collecting habits and the desire to withdraw from society which seems to have run in the Harpur Crewe family.

Whatever the family's motivations might have been, the result is magnificent; Calke Abbey is at once glorious and desolate, and well worth repeat visits. You can take a virtual tour here, but with a series of events exploring Calke's grounds on all this week, now is the perfect time for a trip to Derbyshire. Don't forget your picnic rug.


  1. This is amazing! If you need to go back can I come? PPP group outing? x

    1. Yessss PPP outing! With assorted picnic foods x