I recall seeing this interesting picture several years ago. The location escapes me, but the painting’s subjects, two elegantly dressed, attractive women remained with me. It is unusual to see historical paintings of people of color outside the role of servant. And when I saw the pretty be-turbaned woman holding a basket of fruit, I wondered who she was in the context of the painting.
She didn’t appear to be a servant, her clothes and jewelry were equal in quality to the apparent main subject of the panting, Lady Elisabeth. And the turban, the feather and the fruit bowl seem to highlight her exoticism – in a positive way. And then there was her facial expression, the glint in her eyes, the cheeky grin… nothing subservient about it. When I saw that picture, I thought, there must be an interesting story behind that painting…
A few years ago a Tweet appeared in my feed, featuring a trailer for an upcoming historical film. I love historical dramas and this one was a romance with a non-traditional heroine. My interest was piqued.
Trailer for intriguing Af-Am period piece Belle: https://t.co/RKgUN9aA5y
— Kaia Danielle (@kaiawrites) November 15, 2013
I watched the trailer and then did a little research, intrigued to discover the film, a Jane Austen-esque tale of the British slave trade, was based on real people. A little more digging, and I found that the women in the aforementioned painting were the same women featured in the film.
It appears, that after having been persona non grata for more than two hundred years, Dido Elizabeth Belle is suddenly very popular. Dido first appeared on the modern day scene in 2007, when Kenwood House featured an exhibit about her. A book about her life was published by Harper Perennial in April 2014, and the film about her life was released in May 2014.
Who Is The Girl In The Picture?
I found the best overview of Dido Elizabeth Belle at MixedRaceMagazine.com:
“Born in June 1761 Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy captain on HMS Trent and an African woman called Maria Belle. John Lindsay was the nephew of William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice, England’s most powerful judge. Dido was raised by Lord Mansfield and his wife at Kenwood House in Hampstead, along with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died.
Accounts differ as to whether Dido was born in England or the West Indies, an American visitor to Kenwood House noted in his diary that Lindsay had taken Maria Belle prisoner from a Spanish vessel and returned with her to England where Maria gave birth to Dido. In 1772 Lord Mansfield made the Somerset ruling which was interpreted (wrongly) by many enslaved Africans to mean that slavery had no legal basis in England, rather the decision meant that no slave could be forcibly removed from Britain and sold into slavery…”
Sometimes, people forget that there were people of color in history that were not slaves. Or that, despite societal challenges, there were people of all colors that made great achievements. There is an excellent book on the subject, Black London: Life Before Emancipation that explores the role of people of color in London in the 18th century. This is the world in which Dido Elizabeth Belle lived. She was a beloved and well taken cared of member of an aristocratic family, despite being illegitimate (which was #scandalous!) plus mixed-race (#fuggedaboutit!) and may have influenced political decisions her great-uncle, the first Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice, England’s most powerful judge made about slavery.
She might not have invented something useful or written a book of poetry, for which she could be exalted…she may have only just lived her life, fallen in love, got married and raised a family. But the fact that she did those everyday things in spite of being illegitimate, in spite of being bi-racial, in spite of being of African-descent, during a time when any one of those issues would have been a strike against you… is significant and worthy. And if it weren’t for that painting, the world may have never known she existed.
I, for one, am glad to have the mystery solved. Who is that girl in the picture? Her name is Dido Elizabeth Belle.