Recently I had the pleasure of seeing Belle, the historical film inspired by the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the biracial great-niece of William Murray. ‘Belle’ delivered on all levels with an incredible cast and an emotional yet historical look into the life of a woman society is just now getting to know.
It was the painting above that served as the basis for the film. The painting above that has sparked numerous discussions on just who the playful looking, mixed-raced girl in the portrait was. Up until the 1980’s she was thought of as nothing more than a servant. The two beautiful girls pictured are cousins, Lady Elizabeth Murray (right) and Dido Elizabeth Belle (left), great nieces of William Murray, the Scottish-born Attorney General for England and Wales andthe 1st Earl of Mansfield. Both girls were raised together in the Kenwood Home, both girls were highly educated and cultured and both girls experienced the privileges of their aristocratic upbringing. The only difference between the two was their skin color.
Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsey was the daughter of a slave and naval officer, John Lindsey. She was sent to the Kenwood Home to be raised in the care of her aunt and uncle. William Murray or Lord Mansfield, as he was referred to, was the most powerful judge of the 18th Century. He moved England on the path to abolishing slavery and the slave trade, decisions that sparked much controversy. Lord Mansfield adopted individualism at a time when traditionalism reigned. He incorporated individualistic ideas into his decisions. The mere fact that he welcomed and nurtured his half black niece as if she were his own proves his acceptability of other cultures.
Attributed to Johann Zoffany, the painting is a conversation piece in every sense of the word. It’s no wonder that Amma Asante, the director of Belle, was so inspired by this. “When I looked at the painting, I saw politics, art, history and race all tied in a big bow but set in an Austen-esque world and that, for a storyteller, is a gift,” says Asante.
The painting symbolizes the many ranks of social standings that still plague us today. Solidifying an era in time where your very existence was judged on how high up in ranks you were by wealth, education, class, culture and color; economic issues that still play a major part in present day society.
There’s so much to view when you look at this, so many thoughts and emotions that run through your mind, it’s almost difficult to put into words how meaningful it really is. It brings forth feelings of wonder and awe to see these two girls together. Dido has such confidence in her eyes but you also see a whimsical expression on her face; while her cousin, Lady Elizabeth, appears to be the serious one holding on to Dido as if to pull her back or join her in wherever it appears she is running off to. People of color were always viewed as subservient to their white counterparts in life as well as in art, so to see them together as equals is quite remarkable. Lord Mansfield was a man ahead of his time in the 18th century; to have his nieces immortalized in a portrait proves the depths of his love for both of them.
History tells the story of individuals who, through perseverance and strength, fought to change the world and its ways for generations they couldn’t even dream of. Dido and Lord Mansfield are two of these individuals. I urge you to see Belle, it is a remarkable work of art that shows the journey of self discovery and equality, proving no matter what social group you fall into or what color you are, we have always and will always be equal.
The painting, which is now part of an exhibit, hangs in Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland, the birth place of Lord Mansfield.