Calke Abbey was owned by the Harpurs, one of the richest families in Derbyshire in the eighteenth century, whose enthusiasm for paintings is shown by their dense hang in the house. Among the paintings are family portraits, including two charming double portraits of children by Charles d’Agar and Johannes Verelst, along with Tilly Kettle’s superb full-length portrait of Lady Frances and her son Henry. Over the chimneypiece in the saloon are many animal pictures by Sawrey Gilpin, John Nost Sartorius and Edwin Henry Landseer, and, notably, John Ferneley’s 'The Council of Horses', which is set in the ancient Calke Park. There are also landscapes, notably the four panoramic views of Naples, of 1747, by Ricciardelli.
The bulk of the collection was put together in the early nineteenth century by Sir George Harpur Crewe (1795–1844), 8th Bt, and Sir John Harpur Crewe (1824–1886), 9th Bt. It was Sir John’s grandsons, Charles Harpur-Crewe (1917–1981) and Henry Harpur-Crewe (1921–1991), who ensured the preservation of the house and its contents as well as their transfer to the National Trust in 1984–1985, thanks to a special provision of £4.5 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund to provide the endowment.