Taking another view of the Dido Belle and Elizabeth Murray
30 August, 2019
Kenwood’s painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray
• IN light of recent correspondence, just to be clear, the double portrait of Dido Belle and Elizabeth Murray, at Kenwood House, the original of which is at Scone Palace, in Fife, has been convincingly ascribed to Scottish Enlightenment artist David Martin (1737-1797).
Martin’s charming double portrait of the two cousins is surely best seen as a vivid contrast between activity and reflection, a very 18th-century (and rather Scottish) theme.
Far from pushing her away, Elizabeth, reflectively reading her book in the shade, is asking her cousin, the busy Dido, on her way from the orangery with a trug of fruits and flowers, to stay for a few seconds.
An interesting aspect of the portrait is Dido’s costume, an exotic, vaguely oriental combination of turban and robe, unlikely to be everyday wear at Kenwood.
A suggestion is that the costume might have been a gift from her father, Sir John Lindsay, who had served as a plenipotentiary in Bengal.
Such a costume, however, also reflects a 17th- and 18th-century convention whereby persons of colour are often portrayed in exotic costume, sometimes bearing exotic fruits and flowers.
We may criticise the convention of portraying persons of colour as somehow in themselves “exotic”, but there is clearly a richer explanation here than one of interracial animosity or jealousy on the part of Elizabeth, one which might be thought of as a tactful celebration of a remarkable history well-known to London society at the time.
In fact, Kenwood itself can be understood much better as a statement of the Scottish Enlightenment – high-minded, radical, rational, intellectually refined and practical – than as an aristocratic milieu.
Paid for by the practical, modernising genius of the Scottish jurist Lord Mansfield, remodelled by the brilliant Edinburgh architect Robert Adam, it perched in healthy seclusion on its eyrie high above London, which it surveyed from a suitably philosophical distance.
In this ambience, Dido is likely to have received not the upbringing of a “gentlewoman,” but a Scottish education – a very different thing.