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Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray
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Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray aren’t mistress and slave, but sisters under the skin. 

This painting was traditionally attributed to German artist Johann Zoffany, but has since been reclassified as the product of a mystery artist.  Until the early 1990s, it was simply known as The Lady Elizabeth Murray, and the conspicuous black companion was assumed to be a “servant” (evasive way of saying an enslaved person of African ancestry).  Viewers were puzzled as to why the black sitter was such an active participant in the painting, rather than merely an accessory, as was the fashion. 

Recent research has revealed her as Dido Elizabeth Belle.  Her origin could have been ripped from the pages of a steamy Harlequin romance.  Her father was Sir John Lindsay, a devilishly handsome Royal Navy officer in the Caribbean, who discovered an ostensibly gorgeous slave girl named Maria Belle chained to the hull of an enemy Spanish galley he captured in battle.  He took her as a concubine, and fathered the bastard daughter Dido Elizabeth Belle, named for the mythic African queen of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Recent archaeological evidence suggests Dido may have spent part of her childhood in Pensacola Florida, so we crass Americans could justify claiming her as our own.

Despite the messy gender/racial politics of copulating with a woman you found on a slave ship, Lindsay seems to have had some regard for his black mistress and child.  He continued to carry on with Maria for some time after marrying a socially acceptable white bride, and sent young Dido to his uncle William Murray’s luxurious Kenwood House outside London.

At Kenwood, Dido grew up as the adoptive sister of her cousin Lady Elizabeth, an orphan also raised at Kenwood.  She enjoyed semi-aristocratic status, admired by guests for her refined accomplishments.  American diarist Thomas Hutchinson was less enthusiastic, calling her “A Black…neither handsome nor genteel,” further commenting on her “much frizzled” hair.  He also noted (with barely disguised satisfaction) that she was not permitted to dine with them.  Ah, white Americans…proudly serving you racist dribble since 1607.

William Murray (a prominent judge) presided over two slavery-related court cases while Dido lived in his house, and his rulings indicate abolitionist sympathies.  It is unclear if Dido, who did secretarial work for him and “honoured him with confidence and friendship,” influenced his decisions.  Political opponents accused him of being biased toward slaves (perish the thought), and claimed “Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.”  In fact, Dido received a 30-pound allowance to Elizabeth’s 100 pounds…hardly “governing” anybody.

In affection and respect, however, the girls appear to have been loved as daughters of the house, and had a sisterly bond. This portrait is one of the earliest to show a white and black sitter on almost equal terms, at eye level and with a direct gaze.  The energy and charisma of Dido over the somewhat passive Elizabeth even hints that the artist had a stronger rapport with his less conventional sitter. Dido’s otherness is romanticized by the addition of the turban and basket of exotic fruit, denoting not-quite-equal status with Elizabeth.  But the overall message is clear: these are both ladies of fashion, culture, charm and intelligence.

Dido’s story was dramatized in the movie Belle (2013), with Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth.  Mbatha-Raw won an African-American Film Critics Association Award for her performance.