A Story in a Portrait: The Mysterious Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Mu
Nothing is quite so effortlessly haunting as a painting veiled in mystery from the past.
Portraits have been the focus of many evocative films and books. In the classic 1944 movie, Laura, a detective falls in love with the beautiful woman in a painting. The only problem: he is investigating her murder.
Laura starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews
Josephine Tey's book, The Daughter of Time, features another detective who is influenced by a painting. This time, it is the troubled face of King Richard III that sets him on a quest to discover the elusive truth buried in history.
And in The Picture of Dorian Gray--well, let's just say it's not a portrait anyone would want hanging in their living room.
All these stories feature portraits shrouded by conflict and darker themes.
There is one portrait, however, that haunts with an air of light and serenity, even happiness.
The Painting at Scone Palace
Hanging on the wall in a Scottish castle, Scone Palace, is the portrait of two young women in period dress. Everyone knew the woman with a crown of flowers was Lady Elizabeth Murray. But who was the woman carrying a basket filled to overflowing with grapes and branches? And why does she seem to be in such a hurry? It wasn't until the 1990s that the identity of the second young woman was recovered.
She was Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the cousin of Lady Elizabeth. According to the Scone Palace website,
Sir John Lindsay, Dido's father
Dido Elizabeth Belle was a girl born into slavery of mixed race, whose mother was a black African woman, Maria Belle, and whose father was Rear Admiral Sir John Lindsay, nephew of the 1st Earl of Mansfield.
When Dido's mother died...her father came to claim her before returning to his family home at Kenwood House in Hampstead. There he beseeched his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, to take the child into his care and to raise her alongside her cousin, Elizabeth, in a manner befitting her aristocratic blood line.
Born in 1761, Dido was just six years old when she arrived in Great Britain. Although she became a much-loved part of the household, the circumstances of her birth and heritage at that time made an outsider's life difficult. Her cousin, Lady Elizabeth, became like a sister to her and their friendship provided the anchor and encouragement she needed in a strange land.
Dido's great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, was the highest judge in the land. His groundbreaking decisions concerning slavery became the foundation to help abolish the slave trade in Great Britain. Dido is said to have assisted him in writing letters and other work. She became an important but little-known part of history.
Filmmakers were so intrigued when viewing the painting that they went on to make a feature-length movie about Dido's story.
My husband, Peter, and I recently caught up with the result, the British film called Belle. We're very glad we did. It is a powerful movie with many strands of interest, covering the larger issues of history and slavery, combined with the story of one young woman's struggle to find her place in the world. The plot themes are well-woven, forming a gripping tale that features top-notch acting and beautiful sets and costumes. I'm sure it will become a favorite movie of mine to watch again.
Personal Meaning and Friendship
I think Belle especially resonated with me now as I'm beginning to write the second book in my Christie & Melina Mystery series. Although the two girls in my story face quite a bit of danger as they try to solve a troubling mystery, at the heart of the books is a story of friendship.
In the painting, the friendship between Dido and Elizabeth is also the focus. The composition of the painting is very unusual and fascinating. It would be of special interest to read the artist's notes and discover the reasons behind the unique elements in the portrait. Unfortunately, even the artist's identity is unknown. The work was attributed to the adventurous painter, Johann Zoffany, but that theory seems to have been discounted now.
The Mystery of the Painting
It is left up to the viewer to interpret the many layers of the painting. I like to think that Dido's personality is shown in her pose. Always active and "on the go," her more serene cousin gently reaches out to stop Dido and make sure she takes time to pose and is included in the painting.
I like the fact that they are both smiling, especially with their eyes. There is such a warm feeling of affection about the spirit of the portrait. And, of course, I like the fact that Lady Elizabeth is holding an open book in her hand!
But why is Dido holding a basket filled with grapes and branches? Why is she pointing to the dimple on her cheek? Perhaps a diary will one day be discovered to answer those questions. In the meantime, there is an evocative painting to enjoy and a movie now to tell their story.
Linda Borromeo is the author of Mystery Shores, a novel of adventure and friendship set on a remote lighthouse island in 1893. She lives with her husband in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.