Calke Abbey sits oddly in its low lying setting, chosen by Augustinian monks when they built their priory c1131. (Like Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, Calke was never an abbey until long after it became a rich man’s house.)
The present house was built in 1701-4 by Sir John Harpur, the fourth baronet, whose father had had the great fortune to inherit the estates of his great-grandfather’s various descendants, and the misfortune to die when his son was little more than a year old.
No known architect has been identified for Sir John’s externally impressive but internally inconvenient house. His neighbour Elizabeth Coke remarked of some misdeed that “like Caulk House, the thing is done but nobody did it”.
Sir Henry Harpur, the eccentric seventh baronet, married a lady’s maid and became so reclusive that he was known as the “isolated baronet”, yet changed his name to Harpur Crewe in the vain hope of reviving a long dormant Crewe barony.
His son, Sir John Harpur Crewe, 9th baronet, was – according to his epitaph – “averse to a public life and spent the greater part of his days at Calke among his own people…”
His son, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, 10th and last baronet, was descended from the isolated baronet through both his parents, and in him the trait towards reclusiveness became extreme.
From inheriting the estate at the age of forty in 1886 until his death in 1924 his only major contribution to local life was to take his turn as High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1900.
Like the burrowing Duke of Portland he had more time for his tenants and workers than for his peers, and communicated with his children by letter: eventually he turned his only unmarried daughter out of the house for smoking.
No motor-car passed the gates of Calke Park in his lifetime, and though he repeatedly sacked servants for keeping fires too hot for his collection of stuffed wildlife they were easily re-engaged because he did not know one from the other.
At his death the property passed to his sister, Mrs Hilda Mosley, and from her to her nephew, Charles Jenney, another shy bachelor who changed his name to Harpur Crewe in 1961.
He left his younger brother Henry (who also changed his name to Harpur Crewe) with a tax burden of £8,000,000 when he inherited in 1981.
Henry Harpur Crewe’s determination to save Calke as a unique historic site attracted the support of the National Trust, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Historic Buildings Council and SAVE Britain’s Heritage. Eventually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, promised £4,500,000 towards endowing the house and park in his 1984 Budget Speech to keep the place intact.
The house was substantially as it had been left in 1924; Sir Vauncey had done little but add cases of stuffed animals since his father died in 1886.
Here was the accumulated bric-a-brac of generations of country-house inhabitants and their servants, yet little of significant artistic value except for the most astonishing survival of all, the State Bed, still in its original packing because no suitable family room had height enough for it.
Many thousands of items had to be catalogued, photographed and removed for safe-keeping while the structural restoration of the building was carried out. Alongside heavy engineering to stabilise the building, enormous care was taken to retain the largely undisturbed patina of the nineteenth century.
In the Drawing Room the chairs had been covered for almost their entire lives, so their textiles were revealed in superb condition, but the curtains, continually exposed to daylight, simply disintegrated and had to be woven anew to the original pattern. The original linen-backed wallpaper, dating from around 1855, had to be stripped and then put back on the wall.
When the little pot pug dog with the broken foreleg was returned to his place in the entrance hall, the matchbox that had been found propping him up went back into place also.