Unknown (formerly att. Johann Zoffany)
Dido Elizabeth Belle
oil on canvas
Scone Palace, Perth (private collection of the Earl of Mansfield)
Although this painting falls outside the usual scope of this blog, it is one of my favorite historical European paintings. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and enslaved African woman named Belle.
This painting was most likely commissioned by her father, the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, and depicts the beautiful and vivacious Belle alongside her cousin, Elizabeth Murray.
The first time I saw this painting was in an art history classroom, accompanied by a story regarding the dehumanization of Africans in the Unites States, and the scores of visiting Americans who were scandalized by this painting. In America and several places in Europe, contemporaneous paintings always depicted people considered Black in subservient positions in relation to people considered White, if they bothered to paint them at all. To raise a bastard daughter of color alongside legitimate heirs was antithetical to American thought.
Dido Belle was raised and educated alongside the other highborn daughters of the household, and remained a favorite of the Earl and her father well into her thirties, after which an advantageous marriage was arranged.
Her position in the Earl’s household supervising the poultry yards was typical for any lady of high birth at the time, but her job overseeing the lord’s correspondence was usually a task reserved for a highly educated male clerk or scribe and is evidence of her importance and elevated rank. She received an allowance of £30 per year, more than any except the heiress herself and a sum unheard of at the time for any illegitimate daughter.
Upon Lord Mansfield’s death in 1788, Belle was furnished with a £500 lump sum in addition to a £100 annuity, as well as a suitable marriage to John Davinier, with whom she had three children. In Mansfield’s will, her status as a free person was carefully confirmed, since many would have been all too happy to divest her of her fortune.
Belle died in 1804 and was interred in St. George’s Fields, the parish to which she and her husband belonged.
My interest in this story was renewed recently when I learned that an upcoming film, Belle (currently in production), will be a dramatized biopic of Dido Elizabeth Belle’s life. The titular role will be played by South African actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
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