Belton has been called the perfect country house estate. Much of the justification for such a claim lies in the quality, completeness and sheer panache of its collections.
Comprising some four hundred years of collecting by a family which often had ambitions to connoisseurship, it has a richness and diversity of character that is typical of the best aristocratic collections of England.
The highlights of Belton’s collections lie in four areas; late 17th century English portraiture, silver, oriental ceramics, and books. In each of these areas Belton is outstanding and amongst the best in the National Trust.
No lesser authority than the late Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir Oliver Millar considered Belton the best place in the country to see a representative collection of late 17th century and early 18th century portraits. Works by Wissing, Kneller, Vanderbanc, Soest and Dahl rub shoulders with the products of lesser luminaries such as Mary Beale and Brianus Birdeus.
Belton’s collection of silver encompasses both show plate from the late 17th century through to the 19th century, and more mundane pieces for everyday use. The silver collection includes a series of royal candle sconces, gilded cups and massive ‘pilgrim’ bottles as well as chocolate pots, cutlery and an entire dinner service made for Sir John Cust when he was Speaker of the House of Commons.
The best of the Oriental ceramics tend to be Japanese, splendid in their inky dark blues, iron reds and gilt. Punch bowls, for the service of that favourite alcoholic beverage of the early 18th century, feature twice in the collection; teapots and tea cups, less exotically, appear more often. A little Chinese incense burner is perhaps the most charming piece; from the Ming period (roughly Wars of the Roses and Tudors in England) it is in the form of a heraldic lion, fiercely defying all approaches with bared teeth, but diminutive and prettily painted in blue.
Its libraries, of which there are two, are considered second only to that of Blickling in significance. The collection includes rare political pamphlets of the 17th and 18th centuries, Italian and Russian books and tracts on legal, agricultural and political matters. Recently re-acquired for the library is the late 17th century, Ogilvy book of road maps, the first of its kind in the world.
Some of the most starry individual items fall outside these categories, in particular, the longcase clock by Daniel Delander, complete with perpetual calendar and zodiac calendar, leap year indicator and solar time.
A real jewel in the collection is an architectural cabinet entirely veneered in the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. And no visit to the mansion is complete without seeing the three massive canvasses of birds, painted by Melchior d’Hondecoeter in the 17th century, that decorate the Dining Room. They came from a chateau near Antwerp in the 19th century, and were accompanied by one even bigger, which was sold, sawn in half and languishes now somewhere between Texas and an island in the Caribbean!