Belle: a new film, and a fascinating portrait of a mixed-race Georgian household.

Last weekend I saw an article in the Telegraph about this portrait in the collection of the Earl of Mansfield at Scone Palace. It used to be attributed to John Zoffany, but I wonder if it is in fact by the Scottish portraitist David Martin (1737 – 1797). The metallic highlights and lively characterisation look typical of Martin at his best, who painted Lord Mansfield in 1779 (also at Scone).


(c) The Earl of Mansfield

The two young women in the painting are Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761 – 1804) and Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760 – 1825). They were cousins, great-nieces of the 1st Earl of Mansfield Lord Chief Justice (1705 – 1793), and they lived with him at Kenwood House in Hampstead. The artist has shown the famous bridge at Kenwood in the background, with London and St Paul’s in the distance.

It is a remarkable painting. The staging implies that the two girls have been surprised by the arrival of a visitor, the viewer. Lady Elizabeth Murray composes herself according to etiquette, reading, or pretending to read, but from her smile and Dido’s barely-suppressed grin it’s clear they’ve been laughing just that moment before. More importantly, Dido has leapt to her feet, but Lady Elizabeth’s touch on her arm restrains her, as if she is saying she can sit down again. Dido is dressed in a turban like a black attendant in a painting, but they seem more like sisters.

All in all it’s a very filmic image, and appropriately Dido Elizabeth Belle is the subject of a new film. Misan Sangay was inspired to write Belle (2013) when she first saw the painting at Scone Palace, and was intrigued by the painter’s suggestion that the two young women might be best friends rather than mistress and servant. When she looked further into the life of the sitters she discovered that Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew Admiral Sir John Lindsay (1737 – 1788) and Maria Belle, an African slave. Sir John sent his daughter to live at Kenwood with his uncle Lord Manfield and his niece Lady Elizabeth Murray. There Dido was brought up as one of the family, as Lady Elizabeth’s playmate and companion, and later as Lord Mansfield’s secretary. She was dressed in the same silks as her cousin – as the painting shows – and, according to the Telegraph, the only stricture seems to be that she didn’t dine with the family on formal occasions. The article goes on to say that Thomas Hutchinson, the Governor of Massachussets recorded of his visit to Kenwood:

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

‘[Lord Mansfield] calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for shewing a great fondness for her.’

Lord Mansfield is remembered today for his landmark judgment in Somersett’s Case in 1772 when he ruled that since slavery was unsupported by statute or common law in England and Wales, one man could not have possession of another in this country. This did not make slavery illegal in British possessions, but it was a step on the road to abolition, and it was indicative of the repugnance Lord Mansfield felt for the Slave Trade.  Lord Mansfield also presided in the case of the Zong slave-ship in 1782, whose crew had thrown the slaves they were carrying overboard for fear of a water-shortage and then tried to claim on their insurance afterwards. Lord Mansfield regretted that he could not allow a charge of murder, because the law did not recognise slaves as anything other than possessions or livestock: ‘Though it shocks me very much to say so, the case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.’ The subsequent outcry galvanised the Abolitionist movement which led to the Abolition of Slavery in British Territories and Possessions in 1833.

Like other commentators since, the makers of Belle wonder whether living with Dido helped to shape the repugnance that Lord Mansfield felt against slavery. I am sure it did. It must have cemented the principles he had learnt as an undergraduate at Christ Church, reading the philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) who wrote:

‘Slavery is so vile and miserable an Estate of Man and so directly opposite to the generous Temper and Courage of our Nation that it is hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for it.’

When Lord Mansfield died in 1793 his will left Dido a lump sum and an annuity in his will, and specifically named her as a free woman. She married John Davinier who had worked as Lord Mansfield’s steward. In the film, directed by Amma Asante she will be played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who has previously starred in Hamlet with Jude Law. I look forward to it.



2 thoughts on “Belle: a new film, and a fascinating portrait of a mixed-race Georgian household.

  1. James, see pgs 42/43 in today’s Culture section of the Sunday Times. Best wishes Richard.

    1. Thank you Richard! That’s very interesting about Paula Byrnes’s book. The Times asks me to pay to read it here – £1 now, with £26 billed later which I know I’d forget to cancel – so I’ve found an interview with Paula Byrne in Vogue. I shall read the book when it’s out in paperback. I’d heard of the Eighteenth Century Anti-Saccharites, but I hadn’t put two and two together about why sugar was such an emotive commodity at the time – ‘drinking the blood of Africans’ – and why giving it up was such a protest.

      Queen Charlotte was an anti-Saccharite – there’s Gillray cartoon of her and King George trying to persuade the rest of the Royal Family to give it up. Relevantly or not, one of her ancestors was Madraga, Moorish mistress of King Alfonso III of Portugal (b1230) and Baron Stockmar (1787 – 1863), who saw her late in life, said that Queen Charlotte had ‘the true mulatto face.’ Allan Ramsay’s very beautiful early portraits of her do seem to show this, and he was an Abolitionist too – and married Lord Mansfield’s niece.

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