The story of Dido Belle has, for a long time, captured the imagination of both Historians and members of the public alike. Held now in Scotland’s Scone Palace, the enigmatic personality we see emerging through the canvas has been a source of questions for many – with people asking: Who was Dido? How is she being presented? And even the simple question of: who painted this portrait?
Before one can attempt to answer these questions, some background on the painting is necessary. The painting is of two girls of a similar age. One girl is white, Lady Elizabeth, sat in the foreground of the image on a bench. The other is black and the cousin of Lady Elizabeth – Dido Belle. Dido Belle is placed behind her, stood up with her finger pointing at her face. To assume Dido is in the background, however, is not true: with the ‘S-shape’ made with the girls’ arms, the viewers eyes up directed to Dido’s face.
Both girls are smiling, Dido with, arguably, a more mischievous grin on her face, whilst Lady Elizabeth, appears to be encouraging Dido to remain seated.
So, who was Dido Belle, and what was she doing in this painting where, some have argued, due to scale, she appears to be a later addition to the portrait? Dido Belle was the illegitimate niece of William Murry, the 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice. She was raised alongside her cousin, by Mansfield and his wife in their home at Kenwood House. Whilst this is well known now, through looking at accounts and at the diaries of visitors and the baptism registry where we see Dido Belle appearing in 1766, it has been forgotten over the lifespan of the painting.
When the painting was first removed from the walls of Kenwood House, three years after the death of Lord Mansfield in 1793, it was given by the inventory the title, ‘Lady Elizabeth and Mrs Davinier,’ with Mrs Davinier being Dido’s married name. Whilst this may seem like a strange misrepresentation, perhaps that is just how she was known by the household after her marriage in 1793, and so this naming would therefore be one more of familiarity than a disrespect. A later description in 1904, terms it the, Portrait of Lady Finch Hatton [Elizabeth’s married name], seated in the garden with an open book and a negress attendant.’ Whilst this may have been typical of the representation of black people in Europe at the time, it is most certainly not true for the Dido Belle portrait, within which the girls are shown as equals. Despite this, there has been an argument that Dido, through her clothing and through both props and expression, is being shown in a much more orientalised fashion.
The girls are both wearing elegant dresses, with Lady Elizabeth’s being made of what looks like pink velvet with lace and a chiffon overlay in a classic late eighteenth century style. Dido’s dress, however, is more of a mystery. Art historian Amber Butchart has used reconstructive techniques in order to determine the style and material of the dress, which is covered by what has been described by some as a fruit bowl, but what appears to me more like a bouquet with grapes woven into it. Whilst Dido’s dress appears to be made of almost a silver woven fabric, Butchart determines this fabric would have been far too stiff to create the elegant movement that we see within the dress, and so for her reconstruction she chooses a grey silk, which catches the light in a similar way to the one we see in the painting. As for the style of the dress, Butchart settled on the idea that the dress was a wrap style dress, almost like a kimono in shape. Whilst the kimono style is a more obviously ‘oriental’ pattern than the pattern of Elizabeth’s dress, dresses in this style were particularly popular in the eighteenth century. They were popularised by society ladies, such as Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire, as seen through portraits such as ‘Portrait of a Lady’ by Nathaniel Dance-Holland.
Portrait of a Lady is one that appears to have been very influential for those choosing Dido’s clothing. We cannot be sure if that person was Dido herself or whether those clothes were part of the artist’s collection. Yet, it can be noted that the dress is very similar to the accessories seen in Portrait of a Lady. In the painting of Dido, we see her wearing a turban with ostrich feathers within them. The ‘oriental’ associations with turbans do not need to be spelt out but the ostrich feather reference is more nuanced. Ostrich feathers are often symbols of the ‘exotic’ within the eighteenth century – but both of these can have another reading too.
As with the dress, the items that may be considered ‘oriental’ were highly fashionable, turbans were popularised not only by Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire, but also by Lady Mary Wortley Montague – the wife of the Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Sir Edward Wortley Montague. Whilst these items originated from an area considered to be ‘The Orient,’ they take on other connotations of high fashion. Indeed, the ostrich feather was so popular in France, with those such as Marie Antoinette, that there was the creation of a whole new profession in France of plumasserie, structuring dyed feathers in fantastic shapes in order to grace the heads of society elites. It has also been suggested that the ‘Orientalism’ that can be read through Dido’s clothing was an allusion to her father’s role within the East India Company, rather than Dido’s African heritage.
One question cannot be ignored, however. In the quest to answer the question of whether Dido is the subject of Oriental desire within this portrait, or if she is being painted on her own terms, one must ask – who was the artist? There has been much debate from many art historians over this, so much so that it appeared on the BBC television show, Fake or Fortune. The painting was at first incorrectly attributed to Zoffany, who painted many royal portraits and conversational pieces. The German born Zoffany was, however, not in England at the time of the painting, making him an unlikely candidate for being the artist.
Fake or Fortune does appear to have found a likely suggestion for the artist of this works: Scottish artist David Martin, who was the protégé of the painter, but also husband to John Lindsay’s sister – Allan Ramsay. This would help support the idea that Dido Belle is not being orientalised but instead being presented on her own terms, as a more fashionable and fresh version of her somewhat frumpy and less enchanting cousin Elizabeth. It has been suggested that the Dido Belle portrait would appeal to abolitionists, though it contrasts to other abolitionist artwork such as the Wedgewood medal ‘Am I not a man and a brother’, which highlighted the brutality of the slave trade. It can be argued that they both make the same point, of shared humanity and fraternity, although in this case it is of a woman and, as she is shown in relation to Elizabeth, a sister too.
The thing that is so fascinating about the Dido Belle portrait is how it completely contradicts many assumptions that people have about the position of black people in pre-1948 society, namely that they were solely slaves, servants and attendants. The Dido Belle portrait brings up so many questions, and through answering them we start to answer broader questions about eighteenth century society, as well as kicking up new ones that we previously would not have considered.
Written by Sophie Whitehead
Butchart, Amber. “Dido” A Stitch in Time BBC 4 November 2019.
Card, Jane. “The Power of Context: The Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Murray.” Teaching History (London), no. 160 (2015): 8–15.
Germann, Jennifer. “‘Other Women Were Present’: Seeing Black Women in Georgian London.” Eighteenth-century Studies 54, no. 3 (2021): 535–553.
Gerzina, Gretchen H. “The Georgian Life and Modern Afterlife of Dido Elizabeth Belle.” In Britain’s Black Past. Liverpool University Press, 2020.
Minney, Sarah. “The Search for Dido.” History Today 55, no. 10 (2005): 2.
Sutherland, Kate. “Giving Voice to a Portrait: The Intersection of Gender, Race, and Law in Belle.” The European Journal of Life Writing 10 (2021): WLS106–WLS125.