1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825)
The 1779 painting is attributed to an unknown artist. It hung in Kenwood House until 1922. It currently hangs at Scone Palace in Perthshire, Scotland. It was one of the first European portraits to portray a black subject on an equal eye-line with a white aristocrat.
I went to see the movie Belle showing at the Labia the other day. It is a period movie of historical fiction touching on the issues of love, racism, sexism, classism and slavery in nuanced fashion. The movie was inspired by a 1779 painting, which was one of the first European portraits to portray a black subject on an equal eye-line with a white aristocrat.
The movie begins with Royal Navy Officer, Captain Sir John Lindsay, who on finding his daughter Dido Belle living in poverty, takes her to the home of his uncle Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice who lived at Kenwood House estate in London. Dido Belle is the “illegitimate” mixed-race daughter of Lindsay who was born in the West Indies. Though the social mores of the time make Dido an outsider, she is educated and raised in the Mansfield home as an aristocrat alongside her cousin Elizabeth.
I won’t say any more about the movie except to share with you the opening dialogue between Captain Sir John Lindsay (Dido Belle’s father) and Lord Mansfield as the Captain attempts to persuade the Chief Justice to open his home and heart to Belle despite her colour:
Captain Sir John Lindsay: “I beg you, uncle. Love her as I would were I here and ensure that she is in receipt of all that is due to her as a child of mine.”
Lord Mansfield: “Do you have in mind my position?”
Lady Mansfield: “That is simply impossible.”
Captain Sir John Lindsay: “What is right can never be impossible.”
Lady Mansfield: “What shall she be named?”
Captain Sir John Lindsay: “Dido Belle Lindsay.”
Lord Mansfield: “She takes your name?”
Captain Sir John Lindsay: “I am not ashamed.”
“What is right can never be impossible.” Wow! what a hopeful and challenging statement. Too often too many of us throw up our hands exclaiming: “But that’s impossible!” I myself want to grow to trust this statement so that I will be more inclined to focus on the rightness of something rather than its possibility. Let’s trust if it is right, it is possible.