What great paintings say: Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray by David Martin, c1779
This highly unusual painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray sheds new light on the experiences of people of colour in 18th-century England
Hanging in the Ambassador’s Room at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland, is one of the most extraordinary works of British portraiture, and one whose story has only recently been rediscovered. It is the only known portrait of Dido Belle, the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay, an officer in the Royal Navy, and Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman whom Sir John had liberated from a Spanish slave ship.
What is significant, though, is that Dido – a mixed-race woman living in London near the peak of the transatlantic slave trade – is portrayed as an equal to the painting’s white sitter – her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. It is, in short, one of the earliest positive portrayals of a black person in British art.
A powerful influence
“For centuries, it was assumed that Lady Elizabeth had been painted with her servant or slave,” says William Murray, Viscount Stormont, whose family have lived at Scone for more than 400 years. “But in the 1980s, the identity of the portrait’s mixed-race sitter was rediscovered, and the incredible story of Dido Belle came to light.”
Dido is thought to have been brought to England at the age of about five, and was placed under the guardianship of her father’s uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. Raised as an aristocratic lady alongside her cousin, Dido was taught to read, write, play music, dance and entertain guests. But her presence and status as a member of the family would certainly have raised eyebrows in 18th-century society.
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“Dido was much-loved by the family and enjoyed a close relationship with the Earl, who probably commissioned this double portrait,” says Stormont. “But their relationship may have had consequences that no one could have predicted.
“As Lord Chief Justice, Murray presided over several high-profile cases, including the 1772 case of Somerset v Stewart, which saw a slave owner try to have his escaped slave forcibly removed to the West Indies. In a landmark ruling that is widely considered the beginning of the end of slavery in Britain, Murray found in favour of the enslaved man, concluding that ‘the state of slavery... [is] so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it’. Nine years later he would rule against the owners of the Zong slave ship, who tried to claim insurance on the enslaved people they had callously thrown overboard. Did Murray’s fondness for Dido influence his decision? In my opinion, it’s highly likely.”
When Murray died in 1793, he officially granted Dido her freedom and left her £500 and an annual allowance of £100. Nine months later she married John Davinier, a gentleman’s steward, and went on to have three children. She died in 1804, aged just 43, but her bold gaze and dimpled smile remain frozen in time – a testament to her remarkable life and legacy.
Words by Charlotte Hodgman
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast
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