The painting depicts Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy admiral an enslaved African known as Maria Belle, together with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray.
The portrait was painted in 1779 by Johann Zoffany when the two cousins were staying together at the London home of the first Earl of Mansfield who was the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and the uncle of Sir John Lindsay.
The painting inspired the recent release of the British-made movie “Belle” starring English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role, Tom Wilkinson and Miranda Richardson.
Belle was brought up in the aristocratic surroundings of Kenwood House in Hampstead in London by the childless Lord and Lady Mansfield, along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, following the death of her mother.
Lord Mansfield played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery. In 1772, as Lord Chief Justice he presided over the infamous “Zong Massacre” case after 142 African slaves were hurled from a ship and drowned so that their owners could claim insurance for “damaged cargo.” In a major blow to slave traders, Lord Mansfield ruled that the slave owners could not claim money. He stated in his judgement that no slave could be taken from England or Wales under force, saying: “The state of slavery is of such a nature and so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it.”
The historic painting hangs in Scone Palace in Perthshire, the home of the current Earl of Masefield. And today Scone Palace announced: “The portrait is the only representation of Belle known to exist and will be the central focus of an exhibition, which will open at Scone Palace on 1 April and run throughout the summer season.”
A palace representative explained: “Admiral Sir John Lindsay was Commander-In-Chief of the British Navy’s East Indies Station and later Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean. He also briefly served as an MP for Aberdeen. Dido Elizabeth Belle was one of three illegitimate children he fathered.
“She lived at Kenwood House in North London for 30 years as lady’s companion to the Lady Elizabeth Murray. It has been suggested that her mother, Maria Belle, was an African slave captured from a Spanish ship during the Battle of Havana.
“Zoffany’s portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and the Lady Elizabeth Murray was exhibited in Kenwood House in 2007 as part of an exhibition to mark the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. “
When Lord Mansfield died, he carefully recorded in his will that Dido was a free woman. She married John Davinier in 1793 and the couple had three children, including twin sons. She died in 1804 and was buried at St George’s Field close to what is now Bayswater road in London.