What’s the price of feeling seen? Dido Belle and historical representations of Blackness

Written by Kimberley Aparisio 

Edited by Katya Zabelski 

Illustrated by Holly Summerson

In the summer of 2021, I wandered into Kenwood House, a stately home situated in the middle of Hampstead Heath, North London.  Therein, I encountered this image.

Princess Henrietta of Lorraine, attended by a page (1634) by Van Dyck

Princess Henrietta of Lorraine, attended by a page (1634) by Van Dyck

The portrait provoked thoughts about the infantilisation of black men and the reinforcement of spurious inferiority through images and media.  I continued to make my way through the gallery, where I came upon the only other historical portrait of a black person.

The above is an image of Dido Belle (left), and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (right).  Dido was the niece and ward of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, owner of Kenwood House (Bryne, 2014). 

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray by Johan Joseph Zoffany (1776) © By kind permission of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland

The above is an image of Dido Belle (left), and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (right).  Dido was the niece and ward of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, owner of Kenwood House (Bryne, 2014).  

The portrait is believed to have been painted in 1776 and is understood to be the only rendering of Dido Belle during her lifetime (Bryne, 2014).  Elements of the image align it with images of black people at the time and also mark it apart.  

Elizabeth is foregrounded as the focal point of the image.  This is not unusual.  However, Dido takes up almost as much space on the canvas as her cousin, and joins her in making direct eye contact with the viewer.  Moreover, she exists on the same plane as her cousin.  She is not represented as literally beneath her, nor is she looking up in awe.  The picture became more complex when I scrutinised the cousins’ manner of dress, and the activities they are engaged in.  Elizabeth is dressed resplendently in pink, a colour that has had gendered associations for centuries.  A delicate crown of flowers sits atop her head.  She has paused her reading to reach out to Dido affectionately.  This gesture speaks to their bond.  Dido is dressed less formally, but still sumptuously, in white silk, with a feathered turban gracing her head and pearls adorning her neck.  She holds a basket of fruit.  She is either pointing to her face or touching her finger to her cheek, somewhat playfully.  The turban struck me as a reminder of Dido’s provenance, no less than her apparent gesture toward her skin tone.  Dido’s headdress references representations of black people from this period – servants dressed in splendid, exoticised, nigh-Orientalist attire, as in the first image presented.  The feathered turban may signal Dido’s ‘otherness,’ but equally, it could serve another purpose.  For example, it is not uncommon for those working outdoors to cover their heads.  Similarly, the fruit basket may symbolise productivity.  This calls to mind the styling of Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian samba performer who would enjoy fame more than two centuries after Dido lived, illustrating the enduring power of imagery and stereotyping.  

At this point it is helpful to share details of Dido’s parentage and status.  She was born to Maria Bell(e), an enslaved African woman, and John Lindsay, an English naval officer – nephew to the aforementioned Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Gerzina, 2020).  John Lindsay brought his daughter to England to reside with and be raised by his uncle.  Thus, she grew up alongside her cousin Elizabeth, who was also raised by her uncle and aunt.  This likely accounts for the palpable tenderness between the cousins. 

Although she was raised in an upper class household, Dido worked in the dairy on her uncle’s property (Adams, 1984).  This may explain the white frock of a milkmaid, and the agility with which she appears to race through the scene.  Her cousin is sedentary while Dido is dynamic.  In sum, this painting illustrates the ostensibly equal status of cousins raised in identical circumstances, but truly, subject to very different expectations and realities.

The image below is a modern re-imagining of Dido Belle, installed at Kenwood, and created as part of English Heritage’s bid to reckon with the past.

The image below is a modern re-imagining of Dido Belle, installed at Kenwood, and created as part of English Heritage’s bid to reckon with the past.

Dido Elizabeth Belle by Mikéla Henry-Lowe (2021)

This painting is dedicated solely to Dido Belle, who holds the viewer in her confident gaze.  Dido stands erect, wearing the white pearls that featured in the previous painting, but this time, the colour of her dress does not signify her means of employment.  She wears a turban still, but the extravagant – some would say mocking – feather is gone.  Dido does not appear dissimilar to modern women in Brixton or in Accra, going about their daily affairs with their hair tucked away for convenience.  The portraitist, Jamaican artist Mikéla Henry-Lowe, posits that Dido and those around her may not have been au fait with how best to tend to her hair at the time, and her turban, or headwrap, may have been a simple means of addressing this (Galton, 2021).  This surmise is plausible, given that Dido lived only with her white English family, and there is no way to corroborate the extent to which she would have been exposed to Afro-Caribbean culture at that time.  Anglo-Ghanaian film director, Amma Asante, endeavoured to recreate what Dido Belle’s life may have been, in her 2013 film, Belle, featuring Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role.  The film ponders the extent to which Dido may have impacted her uncle’s decision in the Zong trial of 1783 which considered whether slaves were merely sentient cargo, and as such, could be discarded in pursuit of an insurance claim (Krikler, 2007).

Whether we are considering these images alone, or alongside Dido’s history, and alongside the recent media it has inspired, there is ample room to have conversations about history, art history, media, sociology, race, gender, class, and intersectionality (Sutherland, 2021).  Comparing these renderings of Dido Belle encourages one to note the impact of what is seen and comprehended, and what is reproduced, or represented.  The original portraitist made decisions about how to present Dido, and how to present her cousin.  Their decision-making would have been influenced by attitudes and imagery existing at the time, and ultimately contributed to subsequent attitudes and understandings.  Scholar Stuart Hall (1997) problematised the impact of visual representation in media, noting that  ‘something was there already, and through the media, has been represented.’  In brief, power resides in a metaphorical lens.

These considerations are relevant to my own existence as a black woman, who has often failed to see black women represented positively.  Mikéla Henry-Lowe cites a desire to redress this oversight as the inspiration for her work (English Heritage, 2022).  The success of Kehinde Wiley’s artworks, which capture black people in Renaissance styles, and the popularity of on-screen storytelling such as “Bridgerton” and “Mr. Malcolm’s List” speaks to the value in ensuring that marginalised individuals feel ‘seen,’ across historical narratives.

Works Cited 

Adams, G., 1984. Dido Elizabeth Belle: A Black Girl at Kenwood. Camden History Review, 12(1-84), pp.10-14.

Byrne, P., 2014. Belle: the true story of Dido Belle. WF Howes Limited.

English Heritage, 2022. Painting Our Past: The African Diaspora in England. Available at: (Accessed 30th September 2022)

Galton, B. 2021 ‘New portrait of Dido Belle unveiled at Kenwood House’, Ham and High, 9 June, viewed 2 January 2023, <https://www.hamhigh.co.uk/things-to-do/21332744.new-portrait-dido-belle-unveiled-kenwood-house/>

Gerzina, G.H., 2020. The Georgian Life and Modern Afterlife of Dido Elizabeth Belle (pp. 161-178). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Hall, S., 1997. ‘Representation and the Media’ [Recorded Lecture], University of Westminster.  Available at: Representation and the Media by Stuart Hall(Accessed 12th December 2022)

Krikler, J., 2007, October. The Zong and the Lord Chief Justice. In History Workshop Journal (Vol. 64, No. 1, pp. 29-47). Oxford University Press.

Sutherland, K., 2021. Giving Voice to a Portrait: The Intersection of Gender, Race, and Law in Belle. European Journal of Life Writing, 10, pp.WLS106-WLS125.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Kimberley is a PhD candidate at the UCL Institute of Education.  Kimberley’s research focuses on the identities of black women who depart the United States to study in the UK, and interrogates how geographical and situational changes impact identity.  Her academic interests reside in the field of ‘race’ and education, including Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.  She supports the MA Sociology of Race and Education module at the UCL Institute of Education and teaches on the module Identities: Sociological Perspectives at UCL, which forms part of the BSc in Sociology.  Kimberley recently participated in the inaugural Intersectionality, Research and Action International Summer School in Krakow, Poland.

Photo Credit: Kimberley Aparisio 

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