Inside, you quickly realise that you're inside Bleak House, Northanger Abbey, Gormenghast or JG Farrell's Troubles, with the house playing the role of Britain or its social structure. Firstly, it's a fraud: there never was an Abbey. A Priory once stood on the site, but this building has an Elizabethan core and mostly dates from 1704. Naming it an Abbey was simply a bit of social climbing by the Harpur-Crewe family, part of their astonishing rise and fall. First they bought a baronetcy, then they bought a mansion (with 33,000 acres), then they went out and shot every single thing they could see.
|Purse made from a small mammal|
And that, it seems, is all they did between the 1620s and 1985, when the ruinous house and all its contents were accepted in lieu of death duties. Good works? Very few. Intellectual pursuits? None. Inventions? No. Public service? Apparently not. Blasting away at all living things in pursuit of a multi-generational grudge against Nature? Oh yes. In the end, the sole surviving scion rattled around in this semi-derelict, overstuffed house entirely alone for decades, with not even a single servant and electricity in one or two rooms as the place rotted away from within.
The Harpur-Crewe family, therefore, serve very well as representatives of the ossified, inward-looking, acquisitive and selfish condition of the English ruling classes and the state in the twentieth century. Dependent on rent for income, incapable of modernising or preserving, inbred to the point of paralysis and preferring to invent traditions rather than actually do anything, they came to a sad and undignified end but – true to form – depended on the rest of us to excuse them from their social and financial obligations by getting the National Trust to take the house off their hands in lieu of tax. The only point at which this metaphor breaks down of course is that while the Harpur-Crewes faded feebly from history, our ancient and modern oligarchs are working very hard to ensure that our labour (and votes) will keep them in the style to which they are accustomed. I very much doubt whether Baronet Osborne will be handing over the mansion we bought him one day.
|The print room. Just like when Dan and I papered a rented flat with Viz features|
|Art acquired by the young gentlemen on the Grand Tour, alongside assorted sexually-transmitted diseases|
|The crocodile skull|
|The trophy/games room|
|The withdrawing room|
|The library. Not many learned tomes: mostly wildlife compendiums with – one imagines – ticks next to each animal the Harpur-Crewes made extinct|
|These texts sum up their interests: fear of 'commoners', a hunting book and some sadistic pornography ('fully illustrated')|
|Did I mention their enthusiasm for shooting?|
|One assumes the Harpur-Crewes would not have hesitated if they'd had Cecil in their sights.|
|Detail from the last inhabitant's childhood bedroom|
|The lumber room of the British establishment|
|No bird too small to escape the Harper-Crewe sights|
|Practical measures taken to end the scourge of the gull|
|Seriously, they loved shooting|
|…but one day the servants failed to attend the ringing bells|
|The State Bed, a wedding present in the early 1800s and only unpacked when the National Trust found it in the 1980s.|
|The real work was done underground by the servants, in tunnels designed to keep them out of sight of the owners. Is the symbolism obvious enough yet?|
|Just some trees|
Click on these pictures to enlarge, or see the whole set here.