‘Once inside the house, with its maze of corridors, they could lose her. Then hurrying, they saw her blue cloak. She pushed a huge panelled door and passed through, leaving it open behind her. There was heavy, gleaming furniture, walls lined with gilt-framed pictures, richly draped windows … They were through the second door now, and into an amazing crimson … Minty crossed the room and came into a vast light entrance hall. There on the great black and white diamonds of the floor, was that small blue figure, a chess piece.’
Helen Cresswell Moondial (Puffin books, London 1988) pp.148-9
Helen Cresswell (1934-2005) had long been inspired by the house at Belton before she wrote Moondial, and had wanted to pen a children’s novel based on the building and interiors of the house. For her main character Araminta Cane, (Minty) the drama would unfold upon the lawns, amongst the trees and formal gardens. Eventually, the novel was set almost entirely within the grounds rather than the house; the latter then providing scenes which offered the reader uncomfortable moments of claustrophobia and eerie solitude.
There are many websites which describe Belton as the backdrop to Moondial, some of which detail the nostalgia of the television series from 1988. A simple internet search will fetch up most of these. Admittedly, this was probably the turning point in my own mind as a child, and Belton suddenly represented the ideal image of all I was interested in as a budding (and probably very nosey) historian. Afterall, social history often exposes the private lives of people – they’re just no longer around to protest against the daring intrusions. What Cresswell thrust upon her young readers was the complexities of country house living throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with its hierarchies and varying degrees of subordination and knowing ‘one’s place’ within four walls as well as in a wider society. Amongst many other themes, the drama of the novel therefore plays on the necessity for escape and the achievement of youthful adventure for its main characters.
Within this narrative, much of Belton House is lost, or at least a little faded since it is the Caius Gabriel Cibber sundial that steals the show! The house itself is beautifully arranged, and for the country house connoisseur it is certainly a delight to view its symmetry, colour and use of continental influences. Cresswell’s novel provides a supernatural layer to this country house gem; a fictional element which has served to enhance the architecture at Belton and place it within the country house genre of writing.
Belton House today is cared for by The National Trust, and has been so since the early 1980s when it was given by the 7th Lord Brownlow. Built in the 1680s for Sir John Brownlow to the designs of Captain William Winde (c.1642–1722) Belton has been regarded as the perfect image of an English country house. According to my 1987 guidebook, Belton ‘represents a fitting climax to twenty-five years of Carolean domestic architecture which produced some of the most logically perfect and satisfying dwellings ever built in England.’ The style of architecture is Anglo-Dutch; that of Palladianism but characterised by a marked sobriety and restraint which created establishments set out as those for fine gentlemen rather than that of an aspiring aristocratic elite.
Arranged in the Elizabethan ‘H’ plan, Belton has a simple structure with large central rooms on the ground floor flanked by smaller reception rooms which lead onto passages giving access to the wings or pavilions with their secondary staircases and further spacious rooms at each end. The interiors are a grand mixture of ornament and decoration ranging from the masculine cold hard marble to that of the softer, warmer tones and textures so distinct within many a country house with 300 years of history and design influences.
Incidentally, the opening quote from Moondial is not just a collection of typical country house interiors. The huge panelled door to which Cresswell refers guides her characters into the depths of the house through the Breakfast Room, then the Red Drawing Room (pictured above), passing through to the Marble Hall and eventually to the Staircase Hall.
For a taste of late seventeenth-century country house architecture at its finest, then Belton is worth a visit. The National Trust makes much of the landscaped parkland and formal gardens including the Orangery and sculptures, and its location near to RAF Cranwell also lends a further nostalgic connection to the grand World War II air displays in June with The Belton Spitfire Prom. Yet, once inside the house, it would be unfortunate to miss the rather less conspicuous imagery of Belton’s owners – the Brownlow family and the neo-classical interiors by James Wyatt.
Links. Belton House National Trust site; http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-beltonhouse
The Heritage Trail entry for Belton House; http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/stately%20homes/belton%20house.htm
Surely, the best overall detailing of Belton House on the internet is to be found at The DiCamillo Companion which contains information on style, architects, interiors, ownership and much more. This has also been adapted for the Wikipedia entry for Belton House.