Calke Abbey is one of the National Trust’s more unusual properties. From the outside, it looks a classic stately home, built between 1701 and 1704 with further expansion after 1789, home to art and natural history collections that each generation had expanded. Inside, however, is different and in some ways ensured that the house survived into the 21st century when, due to death duties, deteriorating condition and the cost of maintenance, many such houses disappeared under the demolition hammer. At Bowood in Wiltshire, for example, the main house was demolished in the 1950′s leaving a much smaller property focussed on the Orangery. At Calke, the family’s response to family deaths and death duties in the 20th century was to reduce the occupation of the house, shutting off and closing unused wings and rooms.
Nothing was ever thrown away – it was just stored somewhere in the house, so that when, in 1981, Calke Abbey came into the care of the National Trust, it found rooms unchanged for a century apart from layers of dust, which the Trust has more or left as it found it, apart from one of the hidden treasures, the great state bed, made around 1715 for George I and still in its original crates, never unpacked and, now on display, looking as if it had been made yesterday.
The family history thus has a traditional focus on being reclusive and eccentric, with the owners of the house disconnected from the world around them, raising inevitable issues in the 21st century with our focus on people and their well-being. The National Trust has worked with the University of Leicester on a unique experiment in such a house. As visitors leave, the last rooms, the Family Rooms, house installations on the theme of Humankind. What the Trust’s research of the archives has found is that the reputation of the family could not have been more wrong. They were a very caring family who looked after each other after the deaths of family members, used to go on holidays abroad and were loved by their staff and by the local community. In fact, Henry Harpul who died 200 years ago, was known as the ‘Isolated Baronet’ and was maligned by the diarist Joseph Farington, was one of the heroes of Calke, building the library, remodelling the house, commissioning music, collecting political cartoons and, yes, he married for love.
The thesis of the new exhibition ‘Humankind’ is an excellent one, and ends with a room focussed on support available to people who need help today. As an exhibition, however, it does not quite work. Thankfully it starts with an excellent explanation by one of the volunteers and there is a good leaflet available, without which you would be lost. The initiative is an important one, for all sorts of reasons including bringing these houses alive with the history of the people who lived in them and tying in with the increasing awareness of wellness and related issues. The design however doesn’t quite pull it off. I would encourage the Trust to continue with this initiative, but look at how to develop the design in future exhibitions.