|Taxidermy dioramas in the Saloon|
|Display case of shells in the Saloon|
|Taking a closer look at stuffed Kingfishers in the Bird Lobby|
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.
|Sir Vauncey's childhood bedroom, complete with authentic mess|
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|
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.