Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Dido Elizabeth Belle - black girl in a white world

My aunt, Linda, and one of my cousins are the artists in the family but I've always loved art so today I'm blogging about one of my favorite paintings.

The girls in this painting are Dido Elizabeth Belle (left) and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray.  They were the grandnieces of the Earl of Mansfield who was the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales from 1756 to 1788.

Dido (1761 - 1804) was the child of John Lyndsay who met her mother, Maria Belle, while he was a captain in the Royal Navy and serving in the Caribbean.  Little is known about Maria Belle or about why she and her daughter were separated.  Lyndsay sent Dido to England to be raised by his Uncle, the Earl and she became a companion to his other niece who was also his ward.  What is extraordinary about the painting is how Dido is depicted.  In most European paintings, blacks usually appeared in a subservient position - their heads are at a lower level than that of the whites in the painting and/or they are usually offering something to the white person who is really the subject of the painting.  As per this example below - (I took this at a French castle but can't remember which one.)

It was the tradition to paint blacks looking reverentially up at whites
and offering them flowers, fruit or something of the like.

In the first painting, however, though Dido has been given a turban and made to look exotic she is positioned slighly higher than her cousin who holds her arm out to her. The two are pictured as friends, companions who are easy in each other's company. Significantly, Dido does not offer Elizabeth the fruit and is looking directly out at the viewer, not adoringly at her cousin.

What is even more interesting is, that Dido's uncle went on to write a judgement that sounded the death knell for slavery. When the case of a runaway slave was brought to him, Lord Mansfield declared that slavery was illegal in England and that the state of slavery was "odious" and "of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political...." The fact that Dido's father was confident that his uncle would take Dido into his household and make sure she was well cared for says much about that family and its open-mindedness and it is quite possible that his interactions with Dido influenced the Earl's views on slavery.
For more about Dido, watch this film -


  1. If anybody has any clue about removing that Facebook box, please let me in on it because I've checked the post in HTML and can't find the problem. I don't know if it came over with the video.

  2. Thanks for the post it was really interesting hearing about this :)

  3. Hi! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Imagining Dido's life offers all kinds of possibilities. I'd have loved to know more about her mother, too.