Dido Belle

Dido Belle

Elizabeth Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray by David Martin (1779) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dido_Elizabeth_Belle)

This painting, misinterpreted for so many years, shows a pretty girl with a beautiful woman to her right, visions of aristocratic refinement in the grounds of Kenwood House. Finished in 1779, the painting is unique in that it depicts a black and white woman as near equals at a time where black figures in portraiture were almost always shown as less than, reflecting the fact that slavery was still legal in the British Empire.

The painting of Elizabeth Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth was believed for many years to show a regency lady and her servant but it wasn’t until the 90’s that it was realised that the two women were in fact of equal status, suggested by their body language. Furthermore, the painting was only attributed to David Martin in 2018 by the BBC television series ‘Fake or Fortune?’.

Dido Elizabeth Belle at a young age (https://historycollection.com/16-facts-in-the-life-of-the-almost-forgotten-life-of-one-of-englands-first-black-aristocrats-dido-elizabeth-belle/3/ )

 Dido Elizabeth Belle was named for the Queen of Carthage, her great uncle’s wife who raised her and her own mother, Maria Belle. She was the daughter of a young black woman and a Royal Naval Officer, Sir John Lindsay, the latter who brought her to live with his uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief of Justice at his home at Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. She lived there along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, also in the painting and with whom she was especially close.

An engraving of Kenwood in 1788, (https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/women-in-history/dido-belle/)

 Belle’s position in the Murray household was akin to family. Despite how well she was thought of within her family, she was still mocked for her position and undoubtedly experienced much hostility and racism from other members of society. She often did not attend dinner with guests but would join the proceedings after. It is unclear if this is because of her skin or the fact that illegitimate family members were treated as such at the time, however.

"A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies, and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other."

Thomas Hutchinson

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, in 1775, by David Martin (https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/women-in-history/dido-belle/)

 Lord Mansfield presided over a number of court cases in connection to the slave trade. Even at the time, some thought Belle influenced his stance on the legality of the British slave trade but it is uncertain if he was already sympathetic to the cause before he became guardian to Belle.

By all accounts, she was a well-educated and intelligent woman whom Lord Mansfield entrusted to deal with his correspondence and paperwork, a job normally undertaken by a male clerk. She stayed and cared for her great uncle at Kenwood House until he died and in his will, he officially confirmed Belle’s freedom, however, it is not known if she had still been legally considered a slave up until this time.

'This is work by Dido. I hope you will be able to read it ... Friday May 19th 1786' https://historicengland.org.uk/content/docs/research/leafletslave1final-pdf/

 She married John Davinier a little time later. They had three children and lived in relative comfort, even being able to send their children to school. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 43 only 12 years after her wedding.

 Not much is known about her life despite being one of the most well-known black figures from 18th Century Britain. However, it is clear that she was an intelligent and loving woman, much loved and respected by her family, she carved her place in a society that was always prejudiced against her despite the limited protection and opportunities afforded her.