Books as social history

View of Gardner Wilkinson Library at Calke Abbey. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

View of Gardner Wilkinson Library at Calke Abbey. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Mark Purcell and Nicola Thwaite have recently published a fascinating collection guide to the libraries at Calke Abbey.

Some of the library shelves at Calke with books on exploration and travel. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Some of the library shelves at Calke with books on exploration and travel. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Calke Abbey was acquired by the National Trust in 1985 and was consciously preserved as a house on the brink of ruin, a snapshot of a moment in time and a multi-dimensional archive of the history of a particular family.

Bookplate of Sir Henry Harpur, 5th Bt (1708-1748). ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Bookplate of Sir Henry Harpur, 5th Bt (1708-1748). ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

As Mark and Nicola demonstrate, the books at Calke are a record of the tastes and occupations of various generations of the Harpur-Crewe family, including ‘music, novels, big-game hunting, spiritual anguish, exotic travel, improving the estate, suing the neighbours, saying your prayers, learning Latin, catching rats, or choosing the upholstery.’

The Library at Calke. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Library at Calke. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Certain generations of the Harpur-Crewe family suffered from extreme shyness and other forms of unsociable and obsessive behaviour, which today we might describe as symptoms of hereditary autism.

Bookplate of Sir John Harpur, 4th Bt (1680-1741). ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Bookplate of Sir John Harpur, 4th Bt (1680-1741). ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

This family trait expressed itself, for instance, in the huge collections of geology and taxidermy assembled by Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe (1846-1924). But it is also evident in the progressive transformation of the house into a time capsule – which, poignantly, makes it all the more valuable for us today.

11 Responses to “Books as social history”

  1. PGT Says:

    as if we needed more reasons to love books. what a brilliant decision to “suspended” Calke Abbey. pgt

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gaye, yes your blog is a wonderful illustration of the visual and emotional engagement with books, and what books can say about us. I fondly remember your generous ‘portrait’ of me by way of my reading habits: http://bit.ly/11GQ1iN

  3. suesconsideredtrifles Says:

    Calke Abbey is a fascinating place, which we visited last year on a short break. We enjoyed it so much we visited again the next day to explore more of the grounds! Sue

  4. deana Says:

    I fell in love with Caulke Abbey the minute I set foot in the place. So many great houses have had their vibrant personalities airbrushed over time –– Calke Abbey is defiantly eccentric. I love the idea that they were a long line of Aspergery collectors, it makes perfect sense when you visit. Bravo to doing the library. I hope this encourages more people to visit –– it is a quiet treasure.

  5. Barbara Says:

    Absolutely true…

  6. Andrew Says:

    With so many municipal libraries closing, at least someone it looking after some of the nation’s books. Books are for reading, of course, and no doubt the effort to catalogue the Trust’s books will make them more accessible to readers. Has the Trust has considered having them all scanned? Google Books is a fantastic resource.

  7. columnist Says:

    I am tickled that one of the “occupations” of the Harpur-Crewe family was “suing the nighbours”!

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Sue, Deana, Barbara, glad you like Calke so much :)

    Andrew, yes indeed Google Books is amazing. As Mark Purcell and his team work their way through cataloguing the NT’s libraries the details get added to the COPAC national libraries database (http://copac.ac.uk/). If certain books cannot be found in the main public research libraries but do exist in one of the NT’s libraries then our colleagues are always happy to arrange access for research purposes.

    Columnist, yes, just another country house pursuit, alongside the shooting, hunting and fishing :)

  9. KDM Says:

    Bliss! KDM

  10. Fiona Says:

    Fascinating. Thank you for including the link to Mark and Nicola’s really informative and beautifully illustrated publication. Have really enjoyed reading it and learnt loads. Haven’t had a chance yet to check out the database but will do. Look forward to reading library guides for other properties if there are plans to write others!

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Fiona, I am very glad you enjoyed reading it.

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