“The stately homes of England,
How beautiful they stand,
To prove the upper classes
Have still the upper hand.”
“Songs to amuse” by Noel Coward (1929).
Calke Abbey in Derbyshire is a country house saved for the nation by the National Trust. Owned by the Harpur-Crewe family, the house and its furnishings have remained almost unchanged since the 19th Century. It was described by architectural historian Marcus Binney (1) as ‘a secret house where time had stood still for a century and nothing had been thrown away’.
One of the things that was not thrown away was a Lizard canary.
Records of the site go back to the 12th century when an Augustan priory was founded here (2). It changed hands several times, and was eventually acquired by the Harpur family in 1622. The original Elizabethan house was rebuilt in the fashionable classical style between 1702 and 1704. That is the house, with further alterations at the end of the century, that you can see at the head of this article.
When the National Trust took possession of the estate (in lieu of death duties) in 1985 they found the house run down and barely changed since the death of Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe, the tenth and last baronet, in 1924. The National Trust decided that rather than restore the building to its former glory, they would repair it and preserve its contents exactly as they found it. It is those contents that make the house so fascinating for ornithologists and bird keepers.
Sir Vauncey was an English eccentric, a recluse who shunned the modern world (3). His passion was natural history, and he became a compulsive collector of stuffed birds and animals, shells, trophy heads (4), shells, minerals and birds’ eggs. It is the birds that seem to have been his biggest obsession. Started by his father around 1830, the collection numbered several thousand specimens by the time of Sir Vauncey’s death (5). It contains examples by some of the most famous taxidermists of the day, including John Cook of Derby (ornithologist and taxidermist to the Royal family) and Thomas Gunn of Norwich (6). Some were shot and stuffed by Sir Vauncey himself, and the display includes several examples of works in progress, left unfinished.
The collection is typical of the period: colourful foreign birds, water birds, game birds, and mutations of common native species including an albino jackdaw, pied sparrows and a cinnamon starling. The birds that are of greatest interest to bird keepers are four canaries, each displayed individually under a glass dome. One of them is a Lizard canary.
There are times, when researching into canary history, you need a little luck. Boy, was I lucky. The person whom the National Trust had called in to examine and restore the stuffed specimens at Calke Abbey was none other than the late Don Sharp (7), the noted naturalist and taxidermist based at Nottingham’s Natural History Museum at Wollaton Hall. I contacted the National Trust, obtained permission to photograph the canary, and duly visited Calke Abbey with Don.
Don’s presence was invaluable. Not only was he allowed to handle the bird, but also he knew that many specimens had names and dates written on labels on the underside of the base. The upper surface of the feathers had faded significantly, but with Don’s help I was able to see the original colours underneath. They were bright, and exactly what you would expect to see in a natural-coloured Lizard. We duly found an inscription under the base, believed to be in Sir Vauncey’s hand, which unfortunately is very faint. We could make out it’s name, ‘the bee bird’, and two dates: 1889 (presumably when it was born or acquired) and ‘died 1895’ (which needs no explanation).
This makes it the oldest preserved specimen of the Lizard canary that I know of (8); it is in remarkable condition considering its age. The bird is a broken cap gold cock. The outline of the cap is well defined, with a classic ‘thumbnail’ shape, although it extends further down the neck than you would want to see in a show specimen. The spangling is clearly visible (I had assumed that this would be the most difficult feature to preserve accurately). The wings and tail are dark with white tips, as you would expect to see in an over-year bird. The legs are dark, but the feet are light, which Don suggested might be down to the chemicals used to preserve the bird.
Why ‘bee bird’? I can only assume that it is a nickname given by Sir Vauncey’s children, probably inspired by its contrasting black and yellow markings. Here is one of the photos I took (9); the bird is still at Calke Abbey if you want to see it for yourself.
The information on taxidermy in this article is derived from a paper entitled The Taxidermy of Calke Abbey by Don Sharp, 1994. Much of information about the Harpur family and Calke Abbey itself is from a booklet entitled Calke Abbey by the National Trust, published in 1998.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of the National Trust in allowing me to investigate the ‘bee bird’.
- Marcus Binney is a noted architectural historian who campaigned to raise awareness of the threats to the English country house. He was involved in saving Calke Abbey for the nation.
- It was never an abbey; that name was invented in 1808 by the eccentric Sir Henry Harpur (1762-1819), who also adopted the name of the Crewe barons, a family which his ancestors had married into.
- Motorised vehicles were banned from the estate and visitors arriving by car had to transfer to a horse-drawn carriage when they arrived at the gates.
- The estate had a herd of prize Longhorn cattle. The heads of the best specimens are mounted on the walls of the entrance hall.
- Most of the collection was sold off after Sir Vauncey’s death and many were later presented to the Booth Museum in Brighton, where they can still be found. Unfortunately, Sir Vauncey’s enthusiasm (and the guile of the people who supplied him with specimens) got the better of him, and many birds he believed to have been British were almost certainly imported from abroad.
- Thomas Gunn was a noted bird taxidermist from Norwich who also wrote several papers on the birds of East Anglia. He would produce drawings of his specimens when offering them to Sir Vauncey, and also visited Calke Abbey to assist him with his taxidermy work. Sir Vauncey attended his funeral in 1923.
- When I first met Don, he had an orphan red squirrel nestling under his shirt to keep it warm!
- The oldest examples held at the Natural History Museum at Tring are from the 1950s according to John Record who worked there.
- I took several photos, but this is the only one that I can find.