Calke Abbey revisited

The chimneypiece in the Drawing Room at Calke Abbey. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Several blogs have been talking about Calke Abbey recently. A few weeks ago I shared some images of the magnificent state bed at Calke with Courtney Barnes. Janet Blyberg then showed us some beautiful pictures taken during her visit to Calke. Now Hannah has quite independently posted her own atmospheric photographs of the house.

Calke Abbey, late nineteenth century, artist unknown. ©NTPL/Christopher Hurst

Hannah mentioned that she had forgotten to photograph the exterior, so I thought I would show an image of it here. I found that we have this nineteenth-century painting on file, artist unknown. It seems to capture the brooding presence of the house in its wooded hollow.

Detail of a scrap screen in Lady Harpur Crewe's Room. ©NTPL/John Hammond

As everyone has been discussing, what strikes you at Calke is the evidence of past generations, the seemingly untouched strata of objects and surfaces.

Geological specimens collected by Sir John Harpur Crewe in the nineteenth century. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Paradoxically, it took a huge amount of work by National Trust curators and conservators to preserve and display the house in this way. The aim was to prevent the building and its contents falling apart altogether, while taking care not to over-restore anything.

Even the objects that are strewn about in apparent disarray have all been inventoried and, if necessary, treated. This is the subterfuge – or, if you like, the magic – of conservation at work. 

Lady Frances Harpur Crewe with her son Henry, the future 7th Baronet, by Tilly Kettle. ©NTPL/Derrick E Witty

This double portrait shows Henry Harpur Crewe (1763-1819) as boy with his mother. Henry was the first of the Harpur Crewes to display the profound reclusiveness that was to characterise succeeding generations of the family.

The wearing of skirts, by the way, was common for small children of both sexes. Janet has recently posted a photograph from the second half of the nineteenth century of a little boy in similar attire.

Most of Sir Henry’s descendants shunned society, preferring the company of their gamekeepers and tennants. Sir John Harpur Crewe (1824-1886) and his son Sir Vauncey (1846-1924) developed a passion for natural history and accumulated a huge and very diverse collection, much of which is still at Calke.

Now where did I put that glass dome? The Drawing Room with its mid-Victorian decoration. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Henry Harpur Crewe (1921-1991), who inherited Calke from his brother, was determined to preserve the house with all its layers of history intact. After an intensive publicity campaign, and following complicated negotiations, the ownership of Calke passed to the National Trust in 1985. 

The estate was accepted by the Government in lieu of tax and handed to the National Trust (about which more in a future post). Grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, from the Historic Buildings Council, a special grant from the Treasury and gifts from many private donors made this rescue a truly national effort.

And so Calke remains suspended in time, reminding us of the mystery of the past.

14 Responses to “Calke Abbey revisited”

  1. Karena Says:

    Absolutely, stunning, sumptuous detail! Thank you for sharing!!

    Art by Karena

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I am glad you like it. Calke is such a multi-facted place, because the surfaces and visual juxtapositions appeal to visual people, like you, while the family story appeals to those with a taste for history, and then there is the park and garden as well.

  3. sammy & glenn Says:

    calke abbey looks like a stunning place … another place to visit added to our ever growing list.

    p.s. we didn’t mind the “post – industrial wabi” comment at all …. our work is very much inspired by industrial architecture and the japanese view of wabi sabi.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Oh I’m glad.

    The peeling blue paint on the walls of some of the service areas at Calke is particularly wabi.

  5. beeskep Says:

    One of my favorite places at Calke Abbey is the gardener’s tool shed with its blue paint and old tools and piles of empty flower pots…

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes these beautiful paint surfaces were lovingly photographed for a spread in in the December 2007 issues of World of Interiors.

  7. beeskep Says:

    I did not know the origin of the photos, only that they were beautiful. Was that robin’s egg blue a typical color for service areas such as garden potting sheds? The same color is on the walls at the Royal Horticultural Society Harlow Carr Botanical Gardens, Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Are there other garden related examples?

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes apparently it was used in service areas because it was thought to deter flies – not scientifically proven, but the reason why people thought it looked ‘clean’. I must check if other gardener’s bothies have this colour as well.

    It was also a bit of a fashion colour the in mid-nineteenth-century, because the pigment, French ultramarine, had only recently become available for use in distempers and wallpapers, and was presumably considered to up-to-the-minute. There is a blue wallpaper of this period in a bedroom at Calke, shown by Janet Blyberg: It might look a bit gloomy to us, but it probably seemed terrifically exciting to the mid-Victorians.

  9. beeskep Says:

    I remember a run-down 1777 orangery & gardener’s bothy when we 1st visited in 1991, but I don’t remember the blue. Probably not paying attention or trying to take in too much at once. When we returned, it seemed as if the garden buildings had been somewhat “restored,” & there was that melancholy blue, a perfect fit for the aura of decline surrounding it.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes it is a tricky business to preserve buildings and contents in a state of decay. The conservators use the phrase ‘the careful management of change’, because the – sometimes beautiful – state of decay is actually only one moment in a process of change. In order to manage that process, the conservators and the curators have to work together to decide which elements of the decay are ‘significant’ and worth preserving, and which elements are less significant, or too complicated or costly to preserve.

  11. Dr Peter Burman Says:

    I found this enthralling too! So much material that one wouldn’t normally have easy access to!

    I do hope you’re coming to the conference on The State Bed at Hopetoun on 22/23 April? Information available on the Hopetoun House website.

    I’m keen to receive posts regularly.

    Best wishes


  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much Peter for the information on the Hopetoun state bed conference, which I wasn’t aware of.

  13. janssen edwards Says:

    janssen edwards

    calke is the most beautiful place in the world! i went to calke when it was still owned by sir henry harpur crewe.
    i have visited calke thousand of of times and i have both video and dvd. i took my time too get al the music from the video of the gates behond time and calke revisited from defolf music from london which the do not sell to the gonerel puplic.

    i ove the place and i hope you all do soo

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I am glad you like it. I think Calke has quite a substantial fan-club 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: