If you follow Some Sources Say on social media you’ll know that this month’s history topic is ‘Stories Behind Paintings’.
The following painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle is one of my favourites, and today I’m going to introduce you to her story.
Now I want to start by saying the sources about Dido are conflicting and as more research comes to light what we believe to be true changes. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Dido’s identity in the above painting became well-known as she had previously been attributed as an unnamed friend or servant of Elizabeth’s.
Dido was born in 1761 to Maria Belle and Sir John Lindsay. Her parents held very different stations in life. Maria is widely believed to have been an enslaved African woman, whilst John was in the Royal Navy. The transatlantic slave trade operated for almost 400 years with at least 12 million African people forcibly transported during this time. This is a completely staggering statistic, and it’s likely many of Dido’s maternal family members were enslaved. The ramifications of the transatlantic slave trade are still being felt today, as “European exploitation of the Americas and Africa laid the fountain for many modern global inequalities“. It’s thought Maria was freed by John and that their only child Dido was born free in London. We have a record of Dido’s baptism at St George’s, Bloomsbury, London on the 20th November 1766 when she would have been around five years old. New evidence has come to light as well which suggests that Maria was given land in Pensacola, Florida by John and that she moved there. Unfortunately she disappears from the records after this. John had numerous illegitimate children, Dido being the oldest, prior to his marriage to Mary Milner in 1768.
Dido held a unique position as an illegitimate mixed race aristocrat. She was sent by her father to live with her great uncle William Murray 1st Earl of Mansfield at Kenwood House. He and his wife Elizabeth were childless, and took care of another of their great-nieces Elizabeth Murray. Dido joined the family fold and by all accounts was treated with love and care by her relations, being educated and provided with an allowance. In around 1778, Dido and Elizabeth were painted together in the wonderful painting that inspired this blog post. Her uncle William Murray was Lord Chief Justice, and presided over legal cases relating to slavery. It’s likely that having Dido in his life did affect his opinions on slavery, and he is well known for his ruling in the Somersett case that concluded a slave could not be taken out of England against their will. William made sure to confirm Dido’s freedom in his will, as it wasn’t unheard of for free black people to be sold into slavery. In 1793 Dido married John Davinier, a Steward. Their marriage is recorded in the marriage register of St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London. They had 3 sons Charles and John, and William Thomas. Dido died in 1804 aged around 43 years old, but she lives on “all sparked by one remarkable painting“.
The painting of Dido and Elizabeth was originally thought to have been painted by Johann Zoffany but this has since proven to be incorrect and is likely to have been David Martin. It has survived the travails of time and is currently held by Scone Palace, Scotland. I’m no an art expert, but it’s easy to see why this painting is so iconic. There is a lot of debate about it’s meaning, where is Dido rushing too? Why is she pointing to her cheek? What is the meaning of her attire? You could discuss it for a long time and never reach a full conclusion!
What are your thoughts on Dido’s story and her painting? I’ve love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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The Georgian Life and Modern Afterlife of Dido Elizabeth Belle by Gretchen H Gerzina (article from the book Britain’s Black) Past. – would particularly recommend this source!
ODNB: Dido Elizabeth Belle by Reyahn King
International Slavery Museum: https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/international-slavery-museum
Dido Belle: the artworld enigma who inspired a movie: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/27/dido-belle-enigmatic-painting-that-inspired-a-movie
Dido Elizabeth Belle – her story: https://scone-palace.co.uk/dido-elizabeth-belle-her-story-1761-1804
Slavery and Justice Exhibition at Kenwood House: https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/the-slave-trade-and-abolition/slavery-and-justice-exhibition-at-kenwood-house/