Dido Elizabeth Belle, Race, and Representation
By Madeline Ward
With a single, elegant finger to her cheek and a bowl of fruit in the crook of her right arm, Dido Elizabeth Belle appears to be caught in some form of mischief. The gentle hand of her cousin, the Lady Elizabeth Murray, appears to be all that is preventing her from disappearing into the left of the frame in a flurry of silks. Unlike almost any other image from this period, this painting of Dido Belle and her cousin is one of the most interesting and complex works of art from the 18th century. Any attempt to analyse this work creates a complicated set of issues and questions relating to the politics of race and representation in art and art history: is it something that should be celebrated as a means of remembering the life and experiences of a woman who survived a society that was built to oppress her? Or must we examine the deeper representational meaning of this work, however uncomfortable that may be, in order to truly do Belle justice? A complex work demands a complex reading, especially one such as this.
Dido was born in 1761, the daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved Black woman who was living in the British West Indies, and Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer who was stationed there. Lindsay removed Dido Belle from her mother at the age of four and placed her to live with his uncle William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield. The life of Belle is often so simply explained because a deeper understanding of her early years would reveal an uncomfortable truth: Dido Belle was born into slavery, and remained the property of her family until her uncle bequeathed her freedom in his will after his death in 1793. It would be problematic to attempt to definitively posthumously label the relationship between Maria Belle and Sir John Lindsay, but it’s important to note that the circumstances under which Belle was conceived occured in the context of the system of slavery, with the balance of power lying entirely with Lindsay, as a British naval officer. It’s also impossible to communicate the personal history of Dido Belle and her mother without encountering the legacy of British imperialism and slavery in the very language that we use to describe their situation: can you really say that a person was “living” in a place when they were captured and transported there against their will? Even the term “British West Indies” is a colonial one, enforced on a collection of islands where peoples and cultures were violently disrupted by colonisation. These early years of Belle’s life are often glossed over or entirely omitted in favour of a more gentle retelling of her years living at Kenwood house.
Dido Belle occupied a relatively privileged position in her home at Kenwood. Historical records show that she was educated and given access to high quality medical care, and was in many ways equal to her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, who was also raised at Kenwood House and with whom Dido Belle grew up. She was given access to an allowance and was remarked upon by contemporaries as holding the affections of her uncle, who left her an inheritance and yearly allowance in his will. Dido and her family were still very much bound by the social conventions of the Georgian period, and she seems to have been treated with the same accord that would be given to a poor, but much loved, relation. Social conventions dictated that Dido was not permitted to dine with the family when guests were in attendance, but was able to engage with visitors in more informal arrangements. This part of Belle’s personal history is as important as that of her conception and early years: that I don’t deny. It’s also the part of Belle’s history that most are familiar with. The fact that Dido Belle was treated as a loved relation whilst living at Kenwood House should play an equal part in our understanding of the painting by David Martin, yet it is often privileged over any other in popular understandings of the work. In such a complex painting, this tendency is understandable, but ultimately unhelpful.
These two understandings of Belle’s history manifest within the work. Dido is almost equal to her cousin in representation. They are both dressed in a manner that indicates wealth and high status, and occupy similar amounts of space within the composition. Lady Elizabeth is positioned slightly further forward than Dido Belle, and the positioning of the figures in relation to each other faintly echoes more blatantly racist works from the period, in which Black servants are included to the sides of the white subjects of the paintings, usually holding a bowl of fruit or other item that signifies servitude. In this work, the bowl of fruit is less a reference to servitude, and more to the exoticism of Belle as a mixed-race Black woman living in British society. The feathered turban and silk sash are also visual means of representing Belle as “exotic”, though they are not intended to indicate a particular culture or geographic location, but more to reference the broader notion of the “exotic” in the collective Georgian understanding.
The dual realities that Belle was born a slave and was also a loved member of the Mansfield family are not incompatible with each-other, and both are necessary to understand this painting. The personal circumstances of Belle cannot be divorced from the historical reality of the time that she was living in: the fact that she technically remained the property of her uncle until his death is immediate proof of this. Ultimately, this is an interesting and complex work that demands a complex understanding. Both the context of the work and the painting itself present a number of questions and issues to the contemporary observer: we must approach such issues critically, with nuance and a readiness to be confronted with the truth, however uncomfortable it may be.