Belton's collections

Belton House Library watercolour by Sophia Cust, Lady Tower

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.

English Portraiture

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.

Dorothy Mason, Lady Brownlow by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Sir Godfrey Kneller portrait at Belton House, Lincolnshire
Dorothy Mason, Lady Brownlow by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Silver

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.

Royal candle sconces circa 1690
One of a pair of silver wall sconces at Belton House, Lincolnshire
Royal candle sconces circa 1690

Oriental Ceramics 

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.

A blue and white incense burner from the Ming period
A little Chinese incense burner in the form of a heraldic lion
A blue and white incense burner from the Ming period

Books

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.

The first road map of England, in the Library at Belton House, Lincolnshire
The Ogilvy Map. The first road map of England, in the Library at Belton House, Lincolnshire.
The first road map of England, in the Library at Belton House, Lincolnshire

And more

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.

Restored lapis lazuli cabinet
A late seventeenth century Italian, Florentine, lapis lazuli cabinet in the Dressing Room at Belton House, Lincolnshire
Restored lapis lazuli cabinet

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!

Oil painting by Melchior d'Hondecoeter
Open Landscape with Poultry and Waterfowl oil painting at Belton House, Lincolnshire
Oil painting by Melchior d'Hondecoeter