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Creative women of Belton

Photograph of Florence Woolward
Florence Woolward | © National Trust

The history of Belton Estate connects deeply to creativity, in particular the creative work of four talented women closely associated with the Brownlow family. The stories of Sophia Cust, Marian Alford, Florence Woolward and Nina Cust are woven into the spirit of Belton. Examples of their amazing work illustrate their impressive legacy.

The remarkable women of Belton

Until the latter half of the 1800s, when England’s first ladies' college opened, and women were first admitted to university, formal education for most girls was minimal. Women were required to learn how to keep a home, raise a family and little else.

Aristocratic women were more fortunate because they were also expected to be accomplished in the arts in order to attract a good husband, and they had the privilege of a bespoke, if limited, education.

Breaking the mould

A pre-ordained life as a mother and homemaker, therefore, meant that intelligent women often channelled their ambition into the home, family, art, music or other approved pastimes. And because the wives of wealthy men were not expected to work, their artistic or literary achievements, while respected and admired, would never have earned them the title of ‘professional’.

Each in their own remarkable way, these four women of Belton, Sophia, Marian, Florence and Nina, found a release for their talent and ambition. They created legacies worth sharing for the rich colour they have brought to the history of this place.

Oil painting on canvas of Amelia Sophia Hume, Lady Brownlow (1788-1814) attributed to John Rising.
Painting of Amelia Sophia Hume, Lady Brownlow (1788-1814) attributed to John Rising. | © National Trust

Sophia Cust, watercolour artist, 1811–1882

As the daughter of the first Earl Brownlow, Sophia spent much of her youth at Belton and, throughout her life, painted what has now become an invaluable collection of watercolours.

Sophia was raised in the company of royalty and was a close personal friend to Queen Victoria, which gave her the freedom to pursue her passion for art.

She lived in a succession of grand houses during her life but her family home, Belton, held a special place in her heart, and she painted many watercolours of its interiors and outdoor views.

Sophia Cust’s watercolours

With her husband Christopher Theron Tower, she travelled a good deal around the British Isles and produced a prolific number of sketches, watercolours and etchings of the places where she visited and stayed. On one such visit to her husband’s friend Augustus Smith; Sophia was to fall in love with the Isles of Scilly and became a regular visitor throughout her adult life. She illustrated a book of the islands, and her daughter Edith married the Scillys’ proprietor in 1875.

Sophia’s Belton watercolours are now a precious record of how the house and grounds looked in the mid 1800s. They have been instrumental in the restoration of the Red Drawing Room, the Italian Garden and the boathouse.

Oil painting on canvas, Lady Marian Margaret Compton, Viscountess Alford (1817-1888) by Sir Francis Grant PRA (Kilgraston 1803 - Melton Mowbray 1878), 1841
Oil painting on canvas, Lady Marian Margaret Compton, Viscountess Alford (1817-1888) by Sir Francis Grant PRA (Kilgraston 1803 - Melton Mowbray 1878), 1841. | © National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Marian Alford, embroiderer, 1817-1888

Born and raised in Italy until the age of 13, Lady Marian (born Marianne Margaret Egerton) held a lifelong love for that country which also inspired her passion for art.

She was the daughter of the second Marquis of Northampton and became connected to Belton House through her marriage to Viscount Alford, the eldest son of the first Earl Brownlow and brother of Sophia Cust.

The many talents of Marian Alford

Although she never received a formal art education, she developed into a skilled artist and designer. Marian’s talent is evidenced through her drawings, her needlework and designs, revealing a woman of considerable knowledge, whose skills ranged from architectural design to comic satire.

She was an avid supporter of the arts and was directly involved in establishing the Royal School of Needlework. She believed that embroidery should be valued as an honourable art form and that sewing deserved to be recognised as a skilled profession, at a time when seamstresses still worked in appalling conditions. In 1888, Marian published Needlework as Art.

Although Marian spent much of her life in London and at the family estate of Ashridge, much of her work is at Belton.

Apple blossom, illustration by Florence Woolward
Apple blossom, illustration by Florence Woolward | © National Trust

Florence Woolward, botanical artist, 1854-1936

Florence Woolward was a self-taught botanical illustrator, who had a lifelong love of Belton, where her fascination with botanical drawing took hold.

Florence, commonly known as Florrie, moved to Belton village as a young girl and lived with her parents and siblings in the Rectory. Her father, Rev Alfred Gott Woolward, was the domestic chaplain for Earl Brownlow and Rector of Belton church.

Florence Woolward’s study of plants

As a teenager, Florrie showed an early aptitude for painting and, with access to Belton’s garden and pleasure grounds, she captured the landscapes and plants that she saw around her. Self-taught, she developed an incredible eye for detail, reinforced by a detailed knowledge of plants that she gained from her parents.

By the age of 25, Florrie continued to expand her collection of plant studies, which eventually contained over 100 botanical illustrations. At the same time, women illustrators were gaining more respect and encouragement.

Woolward’s orchid paintings

It’s thought that the Brownlow family was responsible for bringing Florrie’s painting talents to the attention of the 9th Marquess of Lothian. He housed a huge collection of orchids at his family home of Newbattle Abbey, Lothian, just south of Edinburgh. Reports of the time suggest that his orchid collection was only rivalled by that at Kew.

Impressed by her earlier work, the Marquess commissioned Florrie to create a visual record of his orchid collection and her first orchid painting was completed on 27 September 1879. She worked on this commission for 20 years and by 1899 had illustrated a total of 412 paintings for the Marquess.

Florrie was very close to her sister Evelyn whom she lived with in Belton after the death of her parents. Evelyn died in 1927, and Florrie left Lincolnshire to live with relatives in Dorset. However, she found living away from her friends and connections at Belton very difficult. Florrie’s funeral instructions, written in her clear and bold handwriting, stated that she wished to return to her ‘beloved Belton’.

Emmeline 'Nina' Mary Elizabeth Welby-Gregory, Mrs Henry John Cockayne-Cust (1867-1955) by The Hon. John Collier (London 1850 -Hampstead 1934)
Emmeline 'Nina' Mary Elizabeth Welby-Gregory, Mrs Henry John Cockayne-Cust (1867-1955) by The Hon. John Collier (London 1850 -Hampstead 1934) | © National Trust Images

Nina Cust, sculptor, 1867-1955

Nina Cust was an intellect, writer and accomplished sculptor but her enduring love and the early demise of her philandering husband Harry must have woven a certain sadness through her life.

Nina was born Emmeline Mary Elizabeth Welby (later Welby-Gregory) in 1867. Her father was a Lincolnshire landowner and MP, and the family lived at Denton near Grantham. They would have known the Brownlow family well and mixed in similar social circles.

Nina came from a family of extraordinary women. She was a scholar, editor and translator, but above all she excelled as a sculptor.

Training in Paris

Unlike many women of her time and status, Nina appears to have received formal training at an art school in Paris, the Academie Julian. It’s unclear what form this training took and whether it included sculpture, but it was to become her favoured and most skilful art form.

Nina’s skill is evidenced in a delicate carving of Lady Brownlow’s hand. Katherine Harriet Kinloch, Lady Brownlow, also known as Kitty, was the first wife of Peregrine Francis Adelbert Cust, 6th Baron Brownlow.

The two dates on the base of the sculpture would suggest that Nina carved the piece to celebrate Kitty’s marriage to Peregrine, ending with her death in 1952.

A view between two flowering blossom trees down a sand coloured path towards a large Georgian house

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