2018 is a special year in British Women’s History: it marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, when, for the first time, some women were eligible to vote. This moment in history has provided the opportunity for many heritage sites and organisations to reflect on the stories of women and their achievements: for the National Trust, this has resulted in the Women and Power year of programming (read all about this here). It’s been really exciting to see the lives of women celebrated in various properties! We recently visited Belton House, in Lincolnshire, and here we found their celebration of creative women at the house.
To begin with, the house at Belton is spectacular. It’s beautiful and there isn’t a designated visitor route, so it’s ripe for exploring! Belton was home to the Brownlow and Cust families (they began as lawyers, which was where they made their immense wealth!), and the house we see today was built between 1685 and 1688. Inside, there are wonderful collections of paintings, books and silver, amongst other things. Also inside the house, you can explore the work of two of Belton’s creative women: Marian Alford and Nina Cust.
Marian Alford (1817-1888)
Marian was the daughter-in-law of the first Earl Brownlow. She was born in Rome and spent the first thirteen years of her life there before her family returned to England, but returned regularly, especially spending most of her winters there when she became a widow (it was during this time she became very friendly with the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer). She married John Hume Cust in 1841 but became a widow a decade later; it was now that she became a generous patron of the arts. She was an artist in her own right – with her art often expressing her love for Italy – and was a co-founder of the Royal School of Needlework, alongside Princess Helena of Schleswig-Holstein (Queen Victoria’s fifth child and third daughter). Not only this, but she also had published in 1886 her book Needlework as Art, which acted as something beyond just a history of needlework, highlighting its status as a high art form rather than just a craft or frivolous female accomplishment. A copy of this can be seen in the house, alongside needlework and some of Marian’s art.
Nina Cust (1867-1955)
The other creative woman to explore the story of in the house is Nina Cust. Nina was the wife of Harry Cust, and has often been presented as the poor suffering wife to an adulterous husband. However, Jane Dismore’s great article (find it here) for the National Trust shows how Nina was born into a family of female intellectuals, and Nina herself was a scholar, editor and translator, and above all, a sculptor. Nina’s maternal grandmother was an intrepid traveller who wrote numerous books about her experiences, as well as taking her daughter, Nina’s mother, with her. Nina’s mother was a respected philosopher in her own right, whose work on thought and learning contributed significantly to the science of semiotics. As a sculptor, Nina’s work was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and she herself was surrounded by an intellectual social circle, one which her husband was also part of. It was really amazing to be able to see some of Nina’s pieces on display at Belton, in particular showing her love of sculpting those close to her, in the shape of the marble bust of her husband and the hand of Kitty Brownlow.
Sophia Cust (1811-1882)
Outside is where you’ll find the other two creative women celebrated at Belton. The gardens at Belton are particularly lovely, and much work is being done to restore them to how they may have looked before, recovering elements of the garden design long since lost. The key source of evidence for this are the watercolour paintings of Sophia Cust, who was the daughter of the first Earl Brownlow and Amelia Sophia Hume. Sophia’s watercolours are beautiful and are accurate representations of various parts of the parkland around Belton, and also some show the interiors of the house, such as her own bedroom. In particular, her painting of the riverside boathouse, which was built in the 1830s for her father, is part of a project to restore the boathouse back to its former state. When we visited Belton, it was a lovely summer day and there were two female artists sketching in the gardens views that Sophia herself had painted, which were lovely to look at and for them to work in Sophia’s footsteps.
Florence Woodward (1854-1936)
Upon entrance to the Orangery, you’ll be able to see the work of the fourth creative woman of Belton. Florence Woodward was a self-taught botanical illustrator whose drawings are currently displayed alongside her workstation. Florence was born in London but lived at Belton and spent lots of time working on the plants there. Perhaps what she is most famous for is her work illustrating orchids: she was commissioned by the ninth Marquess of Lothian, William Schomberg Robert Kerr, to paint his orchid collection. This occupied her for a decade, painting the orchids as they flowered. Following her work with Kerr, Florence became a botanical artist for the Natural History Museum in London. Her paintings have to be seen to be believed: they are truly beautiful and I really liked the way they have been displayed within the Orangery.
- Find details about visiting Belton and its opening times here
- Think you may have seen Belton before? It was most famously used for (and to me it will always be synonymous with) Rosings Park, the home of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. You may also recognise the Boudoir, which was also used by the BBC for their 2006 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: it is the setting for the Paris hotel room in which little Adele is handed over to Mr Rochester (like the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, it’s also a GREAT adaptation!).