Art Detectives: a new perspective on the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle

In our previous blog about the turban that Dido Elizabeth Belle was wearing in the portrait of her with her cousin, the Honourable Lady Elizabeth Murray, we mentioned that the portrait was reputed to have been painted by Johann Zoffany and we promised to give you an update with some new information, so here we go.

We now know more about the turban, courtesy of one of our lovely readers, Etienne Daly, who has been diligently researching Dido for some considerable years now.

The turban that Dido was wearing was not merely a fashion statement but was a gift to her from her father, Sir John Lindsay, so it was not part of a portrait ‘costume’ as had been assumed.

Sir John was invested as a Knight of the Bath in an extravagant ceremony in India on 11th March 1771.

A sketch of Sir John Lindsay KB, Prince Of Arcot (and father of Dido Elizabeth Belle), as he would have looked around the time of his investiture at the Chepauk Palace, Madras, India on 11th March 1771 when he was the King's ambassador to India. By Ian Sciacaluga.
A sketch of Sir John Lindsay KB, Prince Of Arcot (and father of Dido Elizabeth Belle), as he would have looked around the time of his investiture at the Chepauk Palace, Madras, India on 11th March 1771 when he was the King’s ambassador to India.

At that time he was presented with ‘a very rich dress of gold brocade, made after the European manner with the star upon the left breast,’ a ring with several titles engraved on it in Persian and a turban, all given by Nawab Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah. It is also understood that, at the same time, Sir  John was bestowed the title of Prince of Arcot by the ruling Nawab who was an ally of the East India Company.

Muhammad Ali Khan, Nawab of Arcot by Tilly Kettle, c.1772-1776. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Muhammad Ali Khan, Nawab of Arcot by Tilly Kettle, c.1772-1776. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We think it seems a lovely gesture that she would wear it as a ‘nod’ to her father, in the only known portrait of her. 

Dido Elizabeth Belle

If you look closely at the turban you will notice that it sparkles; it was studded with gold and diamonds. You will also note the presence of a black ostrich feather at the back of the turban. Now, this was a fashion statement! It is also worth mentioning that the fashion of the day was to wear rouge and Dido was no exception to this.

Ostrich feathers were all the rage in the mid-1770s and Dido’s uncle, Viscount Stormont bought some back from Paris in 1774. Perhaps he gave one to Dido and following the fashion, she added it to the turban?

The preposterous head dress, or the featherd lady, 1776.
The preposterous headdress, or the featherd lady, 1776. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Viscount Stormont also presented one to the Duchess of Devonshire on his return, and being the fashion doyenne of the day, she sent the fashion world into a spin by adding it to her hat. This sparked the caricaturists into a frenzy, creating the most elaborate caricatures with the largest of plumes, as you can see above.

The Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds.
The Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds.

It has to be said that the Duchess of Devonshire was mocked mercilessly and according to the British Museum:

Lady Louisa Stuart wrote in her old age of “the outrageous zeal manifested against the first introduction of ostrich feathers as a headdress. This fashion was not attacked as fantastic or unbecoming or inconvenient or expensive, but as seriously wrong or immoral. The unfortunate feathers were insulted mobbed burned almost pelted…”. 

Massachusetts colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson by Edward Truman
Massachusetts colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson by Edward Truman. Massachusetts Historical Society

When Thomas Hutchinson, Governor of Massachusetts, dined with Lord Mansfield in 1779 he met Dido and recorded the following in his diary:

A black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies, and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other. She had a very high cap and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteel – pert enough.

We now move on to look at the artist of the portrait. It has long been reputed to have been painted by Johann (John) Zoffany, but this is now disputed, and to this day it remains ‘artist unknown’.

It is acknowledged that Zoffany went to Europe for several years, finally returning to England at some stage in 1779 the very year that the portrait was reputed to have been painted.

From the account of his life, John Zoffany, R.A. his life and works: 1735-1810, it tells us that he remained in Coblenz well into the summer of 1779. Although not impossible, it certainly would have given him little time to have painted Dido on his return. So, if we discount Zoffany that leaves only a few other possible artists, two of whom we think were feasible. One would be Allan Ramsay’s protégé’s David Martin, who was known to the family as he painted the stunning portrait of Lord Mansfield.

William Murray (1705-1793), 1st Earl of Mansfield; David Martin
William Murray (1705-1793), 1st Earl of Mansfield; David Martin; English Heritage, Kenwood

The slight difficulty we have with the portrait of Dido and Lady Elizabeth Murray being painted by Martin is that again there is a question as to whether he was still living in England in 1779 or if he had returned to his native Scotland. Certainly, we know that in 1780 Martin was in Scotland when he was admitted to the Royal Company of Archers. Again, the dates are tight.

If it was definitively painted in 1779, then it is feasible that he could have at least had some input into the work, especially as Ramsay had severely injured his hand a few years previously which stopped him taking on any major projects.

The other difficulty we have with Martin is that Etienne has checked Lord Mansfield’s accounts. There is no record of Lord Mansfield having paid him for such a work and it seems unlikely that Martin would have painted it for no recompense. So, that leaves only the principal painter to the King (George III), Allan Ramsay, and although we don’t have the expertise to validate this, with the research we have done it would appear far more likely that it was painted by him. Why? Well, there are several reasons to suppose this.

Allan Ramsay, self portrait c.1755-1756.
Allan Ramsay, self portrait c.1755-1756. National Galleries Scotland.

Firstly, we understand that the portrait was commissioned by Lord Mansfield, but there is no record in his accounts of him paying for any such portraiture.

Secondly, given the socially precarious position Dido held in Georgian society, then why not ‘keep it in the family’? Especially when you have an extremely distinguished portrait artist as an uncle to call upon, in the guise of none other than the Scottish portrait painter, Allan Ramsay who was married to Margaret Lindsay, the sister of Sir John Lindsay.

The Artist's Wife: Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, c 1726 - 1782 by Allan Ramsay.
The Artist’s Wife: Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, c 1726 – 1782 by Allan Ramsay. National Galleries Scotland

Thirdly, despite an earlier family ‘falling out’ over Ramsay being not regarded as a suitable match for Sir John’s sister, we know that the family had been reconciled and Ramsay was, at this time, close to Dido’s extended family. Amongst his paintings, there was one, if not two portraits of Sir John Lindsay himself, so again, it would seem natural for him to paint his illegitimate daughter. Ramsay also named Lord Mansfield and Sir John Lindsay in his will, another sign of the close familial ties.

Captain Sir John Lindsay (1737-1788) by Allan Ramsay
Captain Sir John Lindsay (1737-1788) by Allan Ramsay; Glasgow Museums

Finally, the posing of the subjects in the painting appears very relaxed and informal as if being painted by someone the girls knew well and were comfortable with.

Hopefully one day someone will be able to validate the artist and settle that unanswered question once and for all.

To see the portrait of Dido and Lady Elizabeth in situ, it would be well worth a visit to Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland or to the home, where she spent many of her years, Kenwood  House (Caenwood as it was formerly known as), Hampstead.

Sources:

The History of the Royal Company of Archers: The Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland by Sir James Balfour Paul

General Evening Post, September 14, 1771 – September 17, 1771

English Common Law in the Age of Mansfield, by James Oldham

John Zoffany, R.A. his life and works: 1735-1810

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3 thoughts on “Art Detectives: a new perspective on the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle

  1. chasbaz

    “Etienne has checked Lord Mansfield’s accounts. ” Were those his personal accounts or bank statements? If, like many, he banked at Coutts’ those ledgers exist and can be viewed in Coutts’ archive in The Strand.

    Like

  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    The Governor of Massachusetts’ diary entry in 1779 about Dido was disgusting. Even if racism was acceptable then, Dido was both well dressed and very attractive.

    Like

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