For those of us who watched BBC’s Fake or Fortune which took a look at the stunning painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth, we were delighted that the team were finally been able to put a name to the artist which has been unknown for so long, and confirmed – as we suggested – that it was not painted by Zoffany.
In our previous blog about the painting we did speculate that it may have been by David Martin but also offered ours and Etienne Daly (an expert in all things Dido)’s opinion that it was more likely to have been by Allan Ramsay given his familial connections. Well, we now have an answer – or do we?
As we’ve been asked whether our opinion has changed after viewing the programme, we decided to look at the evidence provided. This is quite a long post, so bear with us.
Our answer to the posed question is, in short, not totally, although we’re not and never have professed to be art experts. For us, there are still some questions which have remained unanswered.
If we’re trying to give Dido back her rightful place in society we need to start at the beginning of the programme and correct the first statement made about Dido.
Dido Elizabeth Belle was NOT born into slavery. Whilst her mother had been a slave who was brought to England by Sir John Lindsay, Dido was born in England and not as a slave, but the natural daughter of an aristocrat. We know this from the snippet of information written by Thomas Hutchinson in his diary. Why would he fabricate this fact? He had nothing to gain and was merely repeating what he been told on previous occasions by Lord Mansfield.
I knew her history before, but my Lord mentioned it again. Sir John Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England, where she was delivered of this girl.
Next, Dido’s freedom was technically given by Lord Mansfield on 17th April 1782 when he wrote his will and not upon his death in 1793; she would have been just coming up to her 21st birthday, so perfect timing.
Along with confirming her freedom, Lord Mansfield gave her £100 per year, after the death of his wife, which took place in April 1784, to which he subsequently added a further payment of £200 ‘to set out with‘, plus £300 in a later codicil, making an overall total of some £900. That seems a strange comment for him to have made, but, it could be argued that if he thought he was to die shortly, that Dido would need to be self-sufficient as she may no longer have been able to live at Kenwood after his death.
Although Dido had never been a slave, this document was important as it would legally have affirmed her social status so that there could be no possible misunderstanding after his death, whenever that should come, and to ensure that there was no possibility of her ever being regarded as a slave. After Lord Mansfield’s death, she became a free woman with status, an heiress in her own right, which showed a good deal of foresight on Lord Mansfield’s part and ensured that she was financially secure.
Now, moving on to the portrait itself, based upon the scientific findings of Philip Mould and his team it would certainly appear likely that the portrait above, in the family’s private collection, was painted by the same person who painted the portrait of Lady Marjory. However, the programme left us to accept that (a) it was a painting of Lady Marjory and (b) that it was painted by David Martin and (c) some ten years previously, without explaining how they knew these facts. From our perspective and for clarity, it might have been helpful if those explanations of the provenance were offered.
Assuming it was Lady Marjory (- 19th April 1799), niece to Lord Mansfield, the similarities in style between the paintings was clear to see – the face shape, the lips, the fingers on the cheek. We know that Lady Marjory and Dido were close as Dido was a beneficiary in Lady Marjory’s will, so perhaps the pose was Dido’s attempt to emulate Lady Marjory’s portrait, although Lady Marjory’s attitude looks pensive, whereas Dido’s is slightly mischievous.
Whilst the technology has confirmed that the portrait of Lady Marjory and Dido were painted using the same paint, for us, it doesn’t confirm that they were by the same artist. Surely it’s feasible that two artists could have used the same paint – after all Martin was Ramsay’s protégé, so perhaps both used the same supplier? Theoretical, of course.
The expert, at the end of the programme, was also able to confirm, based on the evidence, that it was by Martin, but equally, he acknowledged that Martin had been Ramsay’s protégé. So, again, although Martin was a respected artist by that time in his own right, couldn’t either he, Ramsay or both have worked on the painting of Dido as a favour to the family, especially as Allan Ramsay was her uncle? We still hold the opinion that, given the playful nature of the portrait, it was definitely painted by someone with whom the girls felt relaxed and comfortable with. Arguably, either artist would fit the bill.
It was very interesting to note that the portrait was unframed, according to the 1796 inventory. Had it been a commission you would have expected it to be presented in a frame or framed by the family shortly after and given her status within the family it seems desperately sad that so soon after her marriage it had been stored away along with broken furniture etc. We also wondered why it hadn’t been retained by Dido as a keepsake if the family no longer had it on display.
As suggested by that record in the accounts book, if the payment to David Martin was for the portrait of Dido, then at best, Dido would have only been 15 years old; she does not look like a girl of 15, she looks to be late teens in our humble opinion.
The date of the painting has long been regarded as 1779 when it was attributed to Zoffany. We don’t think it is likely to have been painted much before that given that Dido was born in 1761; if dated to 1779 she would be about 18 at the time of it originally being painted. We do know that in 1779 her father, Sir John Lindsay was in England, so maybe he was aware of the painting and rather than being a commissioned piece is struck us that it was more likely to have been a keepsake or memento which, it could be argued would explain why there was no obvious payment for it.
Also, it was on the 19th October 1776 that Lord Mansfield was raised from Baron to Earl, following which several copies of an earlier portrait by David Martin were produced, showing his elevated status.
The original portrait at Kenwood is of Lord Mansfield prior to becoming an earl and dated 1775 (on Art UK) – note the difference between that and the one held at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, dated 1777 (below) and painted after his elevation.
Was the 1776 payment for completion of the earlier portrait, or for the copies made subsequently rather than for the portrait featuring Dido?
Following the programme, Philip Mould has now added some exciting news which didn’t make it into the programme; the portrait we see today is not the original, as such, but rather it was added to at a later date by a different artist. The change to the portrait really does make a huge difference to the perception of Dido and her position within the painting and society in general.
And finally, Etienne Daly has visited Kenwood House frequently and has been trying to work out whereabouts the painting was done within the ground.
Could this be the very spot where the portrait was painted (the bare patch in the foreground)?
We are still trying to piece together the life of David Martin, but this is proving tricky. If we’re able together to do so, we will write another post in due course.
To find out more about what became about Dido Belle follow the links below.