Dido Belle: the Artworld Enigma Who Inspired a Movie

This portrait, produced in 1779, shows Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle. Both young women were relatives raised by Lord and Lady Mansfield of Kenwood House in Hampstead, London, England. The painting itself provokes questions, but what we know of the mixed-race Dido Belle was made into a movie entitled Belle.

And Dido's life story is an irresistible subject. She was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Mansfield's nephew, Sir John Lindsay, a navy captain, and Maria Belle, an African woman (possibly a former slave) whom he captured from a Spanish vessel in the Caribbean. Dido was sent to England as a child by Lindsay and, from the 1760s, was brought up at Kenwood House by the childless Lord and Lady Mansfield, along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died.

"It is not known if Dido was willingly parted from her mother," wrote historian Gene Adams in her 1984 paper Dido Elizabeth Belle: A Black Girl at Kenwood, "but materially speaking, it would certainly have helped both mother and child." According to English Heritage, which runs Kenwood, "her position in the household may have been that of a loved but poor relation and she did not always dine with guests".

But was there more to it than that? Lord Mansfield was Britain's most powerful judge and, as Lord Chief Justice in 1772, he presided over the landmark case of a runaway slave called James Somerset. He ruled that a master could not take a slave out of Britain by force, a judgment seen as a key stage in the eventual abolition of the slave trade. "Slavery," he said in his judgment, "is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it."

Many question how Dido came to be placed in such an odd position and posture in the portrait. And why is she pointing at her face? Read about Dido Belle’s life, and some speculation about the painting, at the Guardian. The movie Belle is scheduled to open in the UK on June 13, and is now playing in the US and Canada. -via Metafilter


(Image: Courtesy of the Earl of Mansfield/Scone Palace)


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Take away the color of the young women's skins and they could be sisters. Perhaps, that is why she is pointing at her face? See? I look just like my cousin!
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