During my visit to Calke Abbey with the Attingham Summer School last year, opinions were mixed about the site. Some appreciated the unusual insight into the history of the family that had lived there for centuries while others viewed it as a cautionary tale about the consequences of rarely throwing anything away.
Built by Sir John Harpur, Calke Abbey was completed c. 1704 on the site of a medieval priory. Built of grey sandstone quarried on his own estates, the house is a rectangular block with projecting corner pavilions. Stone steps designed by James Gibbs in 1728-29 were replaced by a Greek Revival portico in 1806-08 at which time the interior was remodeled. The interior was updated again in 1841-42, but since then, hardly any change has taken place at Calke Abbey aside from the addition of telephone service in 1928 and electricity in 1962.
By the time that Charles Harpur-Crewe died in 1981, the house had become a time capsule of the family’s life over the centuries. They amassed a wide variety of items from paintings to mineral specimens to taxidermy, but in addition to valuable items, they also saved broken toys, tattered linens and all number of things that most of us would have thrown away. When Calke Abbey was secured by the National Trust in 1985, the decision was made to present it as found. While keeping things as-is may sound easy in terms of preservation, there was a substantial amount of work involved to halt the deterioration of the house and its collections and there is constant work to maintain things in their found state.
As the family fortunes declined, some rooms were abandoned, and others fell into a precipitous state of decay. A similar trajectory of events took place at the Aiken-Rhett House here in Charleston with the family living in smaller and smaller areas of the house as the financial resources to maintain the property dwindled. As I started my way through the house, I found the rooms to be full of objects, some almost claustrophobically so, but well-kept. As I progressed, the signs of decline became visible until the sense of abandonment became apparent. I wondered what it must have been like for the family to close those doors – did they realize at the time that they were sealing off the spaces for good or did they think they might use those rooms again someday?
In contrast to the decay, an exceptionally well-preserved 18th century state bed is also on display. It was likely made for George I circa 1715 and given by his granddaughter Princess Anne to her lady-in-waiting Lady Harpur as a wedding gift in 1734. Textiles were one of the most expensive items owned by a prominent family at this time – the value was in the Chinese embroidered silk hangings, not the bed structure. The reason for the hangings remaining in this unusually well-preserved state is that they were packed away for hundreds of years, protected from light and the elements. This is one instance where keeping almost everything was quite beneficial.
Amidst a renovation project here, with all my possessions stuffed into a much smaller space, I sometimes think that the Chancognie House is slightly reminiscent of those packed rooms at Calke Abbey, minus the taxidermy. But this situation is only temporary and while I have closed doors to avoid the disorder, I know that unlike Calke Abbey, I will soon open those doors and those areas will become living, breathing spaces once again.
I commend the National Trust for presenting Calke Abbey in this way. While there are many beautifully restored properties managed by the Trust, Calke Abbey is unique in many ways and helps to tell a story about an important period of British history when many country houses such as this were in decline and did not survive. Without signage or interpretation, visitors are left to draw their own conclusions. For me, the property poignantly portrayed one family’s struggle to retain their home. Although unable to keep it for themselves, their story and the insight Calke Abbey provides into a pivotal time in British history is now accessible to many.
Information for this blog post was taken from the National Trust website and Howard Colvin, Calke Abbey: A Hidden House Revealed, 1985.