Immersive exhibition sheds new light on Calke Abbey’s ‘isolated’ family and gets people talking about loneliness and isolation

©National Trust / Rod Kirkpatrick

Researchers from the University’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, working with the National Trust to retell the story of Calke Abbey and challenge the stigma around loneliness.

For more than 30 years, since Calke Abbey in Derbyshire came to public attention, its story has revolved around tales of the reclusive and isolated Harpur Crewe family who were said to have little contact with each other and the outside world.Calke’s remote location and other-worldly atmosphere, with peeling paint and overgrown courtyards, has helped perpetuate the idea of a family hidden away.

Now, 200 years after the death of Sir Henry Harpur, who was dubbed ‘The Isolated Baronet’, new research by National Trust staff and volunteers, and a team from the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester, has cast new light on those who once lived and worked at Calke, revealing a more complex side to the story.

‘HumanKind’, opening on Saturday 2 March, will draw on this new research and invite visitors to explore the lives of six inhabitants of Calke across two centuries, through immersive experiences, displays and outdoor installations.

The researchers, who studied diaries, letters and other archive material, set out to interrogate the evidence that had been used to present a one-dimensional story of an isolated family who shunned the world. 

Professor Suzanne MacLeod, Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, explained: “Soon after we began our research, we realised that the story of Henry and his descendants was largely inaccurate. Rather than a deeper examination of their lives, the focus had been on gossip or quirks of people’s characters, which has stigmatised six generations of one family as eccentric and solitary. 

“New evidence clearly demonstrates that the people at Calke had much more complex life experiences. They had periods of loneliness and isolation as many people do, but they depended on one another. The archive is full of diaries which document busy lives, records of holidays and visits, interests and passions.

“We also found stories of great love, friendship and social interaction. In every case, human relationships and human kindness were their routes out of difficulties.”

The six lives featured in the HumanKind exhibition are:

  • The ‘Isolated Baronet’ Henry Harpur (1763–1819) whose reclusive reputation belied a surprisingly outgoing and passionate man of many achievements
  • George Crewe, 8th Baronet (1795-1844) who felt neglected as a child but in later life was a devoted family man and a confidante to others
  • Victorian mother Lady Georgiana Crewe (1824-1910), who had been labelled lonely based on a few diary entries, but who was a knowledgeable plantswoman and enjoyed deep and loving relationships, particularly with her son Vauncey
  • Adventurer and independent woman Winifred Harpur Crewe (1879-1953), whose exciting life of world travel came before periods of sadness caused by the loss of her beloved husband in the First World War
  • Calke’s housekeeper Harriet Phillips (1823-1895) who kept up appearances in the 1860s, whilst hiding the existence of her illegitimate son, but eventually ended her days living with him
  • Airmyne Jenney (1919-1999) who lost her ability to speak following a life-changing accident, but whose determination and support of her family helped her to learn to talk again

Visitors will meet the six inhabitants through new displays and audio visual experiences in the modern Family Apartments. In the main house, the ‘time capsule’ rooms are still jam-packed with abandoned collections amassed by the family over generations.

Outside in the landscape, three large steel-framed interpretations of the library, the boudoir and a creative merging of the entrance hall and stableyards represent how the true story of Calke is being brought to life beyond its boundaries for the first time. 

The following video shows the construction of one of these interpretations:

Alison Thornhill, the National Trust’s Community and Engagement Manager at Calke Abbey, said: “There is growing awareness of the harmful impact of social isolation on more and more lives, with over 9 million people in the UK identifying as often or always lonely. Through the HumanKind project we wanted to explore how Calke could contribute to a contemporary understanding by looking at its stories of loneliness and isolation, alongside those of kindness and compassion, past and present. 

“We hope that HumanKind, and the issues it raises about loneliness and the importance of human interaction, will stimulate conversations and even inspire people to do something different as a result.” 

Smaller interventions around the site have been designed to foster interaction. New seating created to encourage conversations has been placed in the parkland, and three new Chatty Cafes have been set up within Calke’s restaurants. A HumanKind Pledge Wall will encourage visitors to pledge an act of kindness or self-care after their visit has finished.
  • HumanKind will be at Calke for two years. For more information and opening times, visit Calke Abbey