Scone Palace, Perth (private collection of the Earl of Mansfield)
Although this painting falls outside the usual scope of this blog, it is one of my favorite historical European paintings. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and enslaved African woman named Belle.
This painting was most likely commissioned by her father, the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, and depicts the beautiful and vivacious Belle alongside her cousin, Elizabeth Murray.
The first time I saw this painting was in an art history classroom, accompanied by a story regarding the dehumanization of Africans in the Unites States, and the scores of visiting Americans who were scandalized by this painting. In America and several places in Europe, contemporaneous paintings always depicted people considered Black in subservient positions in relation to people considered White, if they bothered to paint them at all. To raise a bastard daughter of color alongside legitimate heirs was antithetical to American thought.
Dido Belle was raised and educated alongside the other highborn daughters of the household, and remained a favorite of the Earl and her father well into her thirties, after which an advantageous marriage was arranged.
Her position in the Earl’s household supervising the poultry yards was typical for any lady of high birth at the time, but her job overseeing the lord’s correspondence was usually a task reserved for a highly educated male clerk or scribe and is evidence of her importance and elevated rank. She received an allowance of £30 per year, more than any except the heiress herself and a sum unheard of at the time for any illegitimate daughter.
Upon Lord Mansfield’s death in 1788, Belle was furnished with a £500 lump sum in addition to a £100 annuity, as well as a suitable marriage to John Davinier, with whom she had three children. In Mansfield’s will, her status as a free person was carefully confirmed, since many would have been all too happy to divest her of her fortune.
Belle died in 1804 and was interred in St. George’s Fields, the parish to which she and her husband belonged.
My interest in this story was renewed recently when I learned that an upcoming film, Belle (currently in production), will be a dramatized biopic of Dido Elizabeth Belle’s life. The titular role will be played by South African actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Death and the Maiden, Hans Baldung (1518-20) | Allegory of Death: In Ictu Oculi, Juan de Valdés Leal, (1672) |The Frailty of Human Life, Salvator Rosa (1656) |Self Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, Arnold Böcklin (1872)
Queen Charlotte’s possible ancestry remains a hotly debated topic in Art History. Charlotte was queen well after colonialism, chattel slavery, and racism were very much part of European society. Charlotte was considered “plain” because of her features. This is a marked difference from descriptions of Phillippa of Hainault, a previous black Queen, who was described by an envoy in 1321, “…all her limbs are well set and unmaimed, and nought is amiss so far as a man may see. Moreover, she is brown of skin all over, and much like her father, and in all things she is pleasant enough, as it seems to us.”
Although some art historians seem to think the idea that Charlotte was Black preposterous for no particular reason other than because people weren’t racist enough about her appearance, it seems as though there is certainly precedent as well as contemporaneous sources for believing that she is:
Queen Charlotte, wife of the English King George III (1738-1820), was directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a black branch of the Portuguese Royal House. The riddle of Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry was solved as a result of an earlier investigation into the black magi featured in 15th century Flemish paintings. Enough evidence was accumulated to propose that the models for the black magi were, in all probability, members of the Portuguese de Sousa family. (Several de Sousas had in fact traveled to the Netherlands when their cousin, the Princess Isabella went there to marry the Grand Duke, Philip the Good of Burgundy in the year 1429.)
For the initial work into Queen Charlotte’s genealogy, a debt of gratitude is owed the History Department of McGill University. It was the director of the Burney Project (Fanny Burney, the prolific 19th century British diarist, had been secretary to the Queen), Dr. Joyce Hemlow, who obtained from Olwen Hedly, the most recent biographer of the Queen Charlotte (1975), at least half a dozen quotes by her contemporaries regarding her negroid features. Because of its “scientific” source, the most valuable of Dr. Hedley’s references would, probably, be the one published in the autobiography of the Queen’s personal physician, Baron Stockmar, where he described her as having “…a true mulatto face.”
Charlotte, North Carolina in the United States is named after Queen Charlotte.