In our August 20 podcast, I talk about our new exhibition scheduled to open in December this year, 2021, Sitting Still: Girl Portraits. Specifically, we’ll discuss a portrait of two girls, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, with fascinating and unexpected stories that demonstrate how girls’ lives have been extraordinary, both challenging and supporting social norms throughout history.
Before I get started, I want to thank Amber Barnes for her work as co-curator of this exhibition and her research for this podcast. The Sitting Still exhibition is the first in a trilogy of fine arts exhibitions that Girl Museum is going to produce in the coming years. This first show focuses on girls in painted portraiture. The second show, Standing Still, is about girls in sculpture, and Staying Still is about girls in photographic portraits. Both individually and as a series, these exhibitions explore the evolution of girl portraiture from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century. Each will examine the history and function of girl portraiture and examine the various ways in which artists, sitters, and audiences have represented girlhood.
Along the way, our exhibits are asking several questions. Who were the first girls to appear in portraits? How did their subjecthood change over time? How has it contributed to the preservation or subversion of race, class and gender and what was the role of portraiture in colonial society?
We have endeavoured to include as many diverse representations of girls in this show, acknowledging that portraiture has primarily been a western art tradition and as such there are limitations of who and where portraits are made.
For this exhibition, Sitting Still, we will be featuring painted portraits of females under the age of 21. Most of their names are unknown as well as many details of their lives, so we are making educated assumptions in some cases. As with many girl-related studies, it is tricky to know where to start. I think it is best today to understand who the people are in the picture before describing the image itself. And as is sometimes the case, in order to get to the girl at the heart of the story, we have to wade through the patriarchy of it all.
Our painting is a double portrait of two girls in their late teens: Dido is 17 and Elizabeth is 18. In it, Elizabeth is a stereotypical white English rose girl and Dido is not. She is of mixed heritage, and this makes the portrait so unusual. How did these two girls end up in a portrait together? What is their connection? The answer in short is that Dido Belle (1761 – 1804) was a mixed-race British aristocrat who was enslaved at birth and died a wealthy heiress, and Lady Elizabeth Murray is her cousin with whom she grew up.
Like many 19th century stories, they begin with the general bad behaviour of a man. This man is Sir John Lindsay. He joined the British Royal Navy during the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763), which was a fight between Great Britain, France and their allies over the ownership of the colonies in America and the Caribbean. Since it was global in interests, the war was fought in Europe and around the world in different colonial areas such as the Caribbean, North America and India. Early in 1757, Lindsay was made the captain of the HMS Trent, where he served until the end of the war in 1763. The HMS Trent was stationed in the West Indies and took part in the capture of the Spanish port of Havana on the island of Cuba in August of 1762. After the war, Lindsay returned to England where he received a knighthood. He returned to the West Indies in command of a ship and then finally returned to Scotland, where he married his wife, Mary, in 1768. The couple had no children together. However, John was a prolific father prior to his marriage. Recent investigations have updated the amount of children Lindsay fathered to at least five children by five different mothers, of whom four were known to be of African heritage. The children are recorded in the baptism records of Port Royal, near Kingston, Jamaica. In these records the mothers are described either by their full name or as a “free negro woman” or “free mulatto woman”.
This would suggest that while he was not marrying these women, Lindsay was possibly, but not necessarily taking advantage of enslaved women. However, that doesn’t clarify if he was taking advantage of free women either–just that the enslavement part is not present. At least two of these five children are known or thought to have died before they were two years old. Dido was the eldest of Lindsay’s illegitimate children. And by illegitimate, a term I really do not like, this means that their parents weren’t married when they were born, a social convention that dictated whether one could inherit or lay claim to a father’s estate. Though social conventions would lead to many illegitimate children being treated as illegitimate humans (often through very bad treatment, forced work, or simply being ignored), it did not in legal fact mean the children were illegal or somehow lesser human beings. It just meant that legally, Dido and her half-siblings were not legally recognized as Lindsay’s children with rights of inheritance or maintenance.
Dido was born in 1761 in Jamaica. Her mother was an African woman named Maria Bell, a slave that Lindsay either rescued or kidnapped from a Spanish slave ship. Upon rescue/kidnapping, Maria’s slave status would be debated. It also seems that Lindsay took Maria Bell as a sort of wife under a civil union system called placage, an extralegal system in French and Spanish slave colonies of North America and the Caribbean where European men entered into civil unions with African, Native Americans and other non-Europeans.
Lindsay was stationed in Pensacola in Spanish Florida from 1764 to 1765 and Dido lived with him there. When she was four years old, Lindsay brought Dido to England to live with his uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield, and Murray’s wife. The couple was childless, already raising Elizabeth Murray, their great niece, and took Dido into their household, presumably as a companion for Elizabeth.
Dido had little contact with her father due to him being at sea for long periods. She was baptized in St. George’s Church, the parish church of Lord Mansfield’s house in Bloomsbury Square, in London on November 20, 1766, at the age of five. Sir John Lindsay is not recorded as the father of Dido. Where Maria Bell – Dido’s mother – was during this time is uncertain, but he likely supported her mother Maria, or at least kept in contact. As the next mention of her occurs in 1773, when Lindsay began a process to transfer a piece of property he owned in Pensacola, Florida to Maria, with the requirement that she build a house there. At the time, documents state that Maria was living in London but a year later, when the deal was finalised, she had travelled to America. In the document, she was referred to as ‘a Negro woman of Pensacola, formerly of Pensacola, and then residing in London’. Perhaps Lindsay was trying to look after her or perhaps he wanted to entice her back to America. His intentions remain elusive.
Dido was brought up in aristocratic surroundings alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, at Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath, London. Dido’s life at Kenwood House was complicated. It was extremely unusual for a mixed-race child to be raised not as a servant, but as part of an aristocratic British family. Dido’s exact position in Lord Mansfield’s household is unknown, but it has been suggested that she was brought up as a lady rather than as a servant. She supervised Kenwood’s dairy and poultry yard, a common hobby for genteel ladies in the 18th century. She received an annual allowance of 30 pounds compared to Elizabeth’s 100 pounds. However, she was taught how to read, write, play music and practise other social skills.
In 1784, Lord Mansfield’s wife passed away and, in 1785, Elizabeth married George Finch-Hatton, fifth son of the 7th Earl of Winchelsea and she moved to Eastwell Park near Ashford in Kent. Dido remained at Kenwood without her close companion. When John Lindsay passed away in 1788 he failed to leave his inheritance to Dido, instead leaving it to two other illegitimate children. For the next 8 years, she served as Lord Mansfield’s legal secretary, assisting him with his correspondence (an unusual activity for women in the 18th century) and looked after him in his declining health.
Dido did, however, remain the property of Lord Mansfield under English law of the time. On the 20th of March in 1793, Lord Mansfield died at Kenwood House. In his will, Lord Mansfield assured Dido’s freedom, stating literally: ‘I confirm to Dido Elizabeth Belle her freedom’. Lord Mansfield gave Dido an annuity of 100 pounds a year and a lump sum of 500 pounds. Lord Mansfield left Dido considerably less in his will than he did Elizabeth, who received 10,000 pounds. However, Elizabeth would have already received some of her inheritance as part of her dowry, and all of Elizabeth’s property was owned by her husband under English law. Dido’s African heritage may have played a part in this disparity, yet it was not unusual for illegitimate children to receive less financial acknowledgement. What is remarkable is that Dido owned her fortune outright, with no legal guardian or husband.
However, that soon changed. On the 5th December 1793, Dido married John Davinier, a gentleman’s steward. They lived a comfortable, middle class life in Pimlico, London. They had three boys. Sadly, Dido died in July 1804 at the age of forty three when her youngest child was only 4 years old. She was buried at St George’s Church burial ground in Tyburn. And unfortunately, her grave was moved when the area was redeveloped for housing in the late 1960s.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, commissioned by the Murray family in 1778 when Dido was 17, is evidence of the complexities of relationships and ambivalences of the Georgian period in terms of race, class and family. The painting depicts Dido standing beside her cousin Elizabeth on the terrace at Kenwood House. This portrait is one of the earliest to show a black and white sitter on almost equal terms, at eye level and with direct, confident gazes. Dido is an active participant in the painting, rather than merely an accessory or servile figure. The girls both appear with facial expressions and smiles that indicate a pleasant relationship and Elizabeth is also touching Dido’s arm to show their sisterly bond/connection. Dido’s aristocratic upbringing is apparent in her luxurious silk gown and expensive pearl necklace. The turban and the basket of fruit she carries suggests an exotic difference between her and her more conventionally dressed cousin, who is sitting reading a book. These details might indicate differences in character or differences in status. Tropical fruit was a very common accessory for African servants in paintings belonging to the aristocracy. This painting conveys the ambivalence of her status at the time with the turban indicating her exotic or non-European heritage and her dress and jewelry showing her aristocratic English heritage. In the painting, by virtue on her skin color her otherness is indicated. However, at Kenwood house, Dido’s life may not have have much ambivalence, she may have just been one of the family, but her mother’s former slave status would never have been far from some people’s minds or society at large. While this portrait is an important artifact representing two people at a moment in history, we cannot know the nuances and intricacies of their relationship or wider implications of what was an unusual situation at the time.
To learn more about this and other paintings of girls, please check out Sitting Still when it launches at the end of 2021.
-Ashley E. Remer
Girl Museum Inc.