Dido Elizabeth Belle – A new perspective on her portrait

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.

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 and believes that 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.

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 seems highly likely that it would have been 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, David Martin (1737-1797), 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 (although he retained his property in Dartford until 1782). 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!

David Martin self-portrait. National Galleries of Scotland
David Martin self-portrait. National Galleries of Scotland

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. These proved inconclusive.

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, Margaret, 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, perhaps one for the BBC’s Fake or Fortune to investigate!

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.

During our research into the life of Dido, we have also discovered NEW information about Sir John Lindsay’s other illegitimate children and  NEW information about what became of Dido and her husband John Davinière. To find out more follow the highlighted links.


Following the BBC’s programme Fake or Fortune, you might be interested to read our thoughts on the findings.


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

29 thoughts on “Dido Elizabeth Belle – A new perspective on her portrait

  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.


  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.


    1. Lucy

      Yes, he sounds a bit like James Boswell as his unattractive worst. And while he may indeed have been a blatant racist (and remarkably arrogant to cap it), it’s just as possible that he tried to flirt with Dido, who was really beautiful, and got put in his place. There’s a strong potential hint of sour grapes there.


  3. Lucy

    This is a late reply, but you might find it very interesting to compare Dido’s portrait with Stephen Slaughter’s “Young Woman with Servant” in the permanent collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum (usually incorrectly titled by a wishful internet as “Two Society Women”),


    A number of similarities to Ramsey’s (?) work exist: the “servant” is plainly the confidant of the “lady,” and a fond relationship appears to exist between them; like Dido, she is wearing jewelry, and lace ruffles which were probably as costly as those of her mistress. She also (like Dido) appears to be wearing a small black plume in her hair. The styles of dress and hair can be dated to the 1740s.

    Like you, I would also think Ramsey the most likely artist for Dido’s portrait: she was painted by someone who wanted to bring out the best in her, who succeeded magnificently in putting her inner sparkle and joy (and a touch of mischief) on canvas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      Not late at all, our posts are always open for comments 🙂 Hmm, you’ve now got us totally fascinated by this portrait, it’s certainly an unusual one for the period. We’re going to do some digging and see what else we can find out about it. So far, it doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere – perhaps it was previously in a private collection 🙂 Thank you so much for bringing it to our attention.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lucy

        You’re very welcome! 🙂

        There is also a Twitter repost, which incorrectly titles the portrait, but it points to the Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection at Wadsworth. The information doesn’t appear on the museum page at present, but it may provide a trace to previous ownership.


        1. Sarah Murden

          Thanks Lucy, we’re awaiting a reply from them as we’d love to know who the women were, why it was commissioned. It also had the title ‘Ladies Gathering Fruit‘ and was sold by Sotheby’s in November 1968 using that, they also dated it 1750, but as we understand it’s un-dated we’re trying to track down all his other paintings to see if it’s possible to give it a more accurate date, so now it’s on our radar it’s ‘work in progress’ 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Jean Etienne Liotard 1702-1789 painted ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’ who was black. I also researched Stephan Slaughter’s ‘Ladies Gathering Fruit’. However, why is it not possible that Zoffany was the original painter Dido Belle’s portrait? Zoffany painted the first black (biracial) Queen of England, Sophie Charlotte, as well as Allan Ramsay. Zoffany and Ramsay must’ve had some anti-slavery collaboration or something, both having painted black women in the same neoclassical gap.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      Hi Glory, thank you for your comments and whilst Zoffany can’t be completely discounted as the artist it is widely acknowledged that he wasn’t. The timeframe for painting means that in all likelihood Zoffany wasn’t in the country to have been able to paint it. Also, the familial connection between Ramsay and Dido as outlined in the blog, makes it seem much more likely. You mention ‘Ladies Gathering Fruit’ – interesting that it seems to have several different titles – we’re presently trying to find out more about the painting, but little appears to be known as to who the women were or exactly when it was painted although 1740’s would appear to about the right time given the clothing.


  5. Dear people I am not by any means an Art Historian however, what knowledge I gather comes from various sources.
    I would wish to draw your attention to now undisputed fact that is was most certainly James Martin. I gained the knowledge from watcihing a wonderful programme on BBC which works with owners of paintings of unknown artists. Such was the case of that they were asked by the family at Scone Palace to search for the artist of the painting in your information. After a great deal of forensics on their part and finally finding a purchase of sale it was unquestionably the Scottish Artist James Bell.


  6. Andrea Long

    I find it interesting that Dido points to her cheek. What does it signify?

    Is it an allusion to her nature – that she was rather ‘tongue in cheek’? In the words of Thomas Hutchinson, Governor of Massachusetts, “She is neither handsome nor genteel – pert enough.” Instead, is she telling us that she has had to ‘turn the other cheek’ in light of the reception she receives as a mixed race woman in the 18th century? Maybe the gesture is a mix of both meanings.

    She holds a basket of fruit, which seems to be a nod to the bounty of her Caribbean roots. Additionally, she seems preoccupied in fleeing the scene – Can this be attributed to her desire to remain out of the limelight? As stated by Governor Hutchinson, she does not dine with the guests but joins later – “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.”

    We can observe Lady Elizabeth Murray reaching out to her. In other interpretations, some have suggested that Lady Murray is pushing Dido but I feel quite the opposite. As Governor Hutchinson commented, a young lady walked arm in arm with Dido. Was this Lady Elizabeth? We know that the two shared a deep friendship and concern for each other. I feel the gesture shows Lady Murray gently and lovingly detaining Dido, keeping her in the painting and thereby solidifying Dido’s presence and importance.


    1. Sarah Murden

      We feel that it’s something we will never know and it will always remain open to interpretation. Dido and Lady Elizabeth were very close, so it looks like an informal portrait of the girls, perhaps capturing their likeness whilst they were being playful.


  7. The portrait is a construct by the artist to depict a moment in time that delivers several long term messages. They are that Dido Belle is a welcome member of the family and not a servant, as is attested by her fine clothing and the small fortune in pearls, necklace and pendant earrings that she is wearing. To answer the uncertainty of the viewer as to her status Dido Belle is depicted with an expression of puzzlement on whether she should remain or stay and has a nervous, maybe mischievous grin. Touching the face is a gesture of self-comfort when people are puzzled or undecided, we all do it, and Martin here uses it to signal Dido’s uncertainty contrasting with the strong and calm assurance of Lady Elizabeth as she continues to look gun barrel straight out of the portrait. Martin confirms this by Dido Belle arising to leave, but she is gently restrained by Lady Elizabeth surreptitiously grasping Dido Belle’s sleeve. It is a harmonious study of the dynamic and the static, Dido on the move and Lady Elizabeth not even twitching a muscle as it were. The silent message from Lady Elisabeth is don’t go, you belong here too, and that is being indicated to the viewer as well. It is a great painting as Martin has created a story within a fleeting moment, as depicted, which is one full of meaning, a meaning that today has a far wider interpretation in terms of racial equality.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Sarah Murden

          She certainly does. Her character appeared in an episode of the ITV programme Victoria, but a sort of child cameo role really – she definitely deserves more.


  8. hendel12

    Is there any evidence that didos father gave her that turban?

    And why does the researcher thinks he gifted her the turban?

    Also did sir John Lindsay visited Mansfield’s house? I mean that is his uncle after all..


    1. Sarah Murden

      Given that Sir John was presented with a lavish outfit by Nawab Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah, Etienne Daly believes that Dido wearing the Indian turban is a nod to Sir John Lindsay who, in all likelihood gave it to her on his return from India as a gift from his travels. Whilst there is no categorical evidence to support this, it is the most likely explanation unless some documents miraculously appear in the future to confirm it. Also it begs the question as to why Dido would wear such a hat, if she merely wanted to make a fashion statement she’d probably have gone for something more akin to the Fanny Abington style.

      It could, of course, be argued that it’s merely a costume piece along with paste jewels, but that seems highly unlikely. It appears that Dido’s whole costume was making a statement about her position in the family, her uncles ‘French ostrich feathers’, her father’s Indian turban and Lady Marjory’s pearls around her neck, which are a match to those in the portrait of Lady Marjory and the very English dress of a lady.

      We do know that Sir John was a regular, if infrequent visitor to Kenwood, so would have seen Dido on these occasions.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Mary Fillis and Dido Belle: Black Women You Should Know About

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