My Favourite Painting: Paula Sutton

The author Paula Sutton chooses 'Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle' by David Martin.

Paula Sutton chooses Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle by David Martin

‘I’ve always been drawn to figurative painting – particularly from the 17th and 18th centuries. I love the history, the clothing and the real stories behind the contrived poses. I studied History of Art at school and was accustomed to a one-dimensional depiction of black females in Western historical paintings. The uncomfortable reality is that they were often painted as the servant or slave. However, this one of Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth is different and thought-provoking.

‘An elegant young black woman wears expensive silks and jewellery and carries a basket of expensive tropical fruit. Refreshingly, she is positioned neither beneath, nor subservient to her cousin, which always makes me wonder about the reality of her life and what her position in society must have felt like. As the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay, brought up by his uncle, Dido was an educated gentlewoman.

‘It’s not a fairy tale, of course. She may have become an heiress, but one cannot escape the fact that she was born into slavery.’

Paula Sutton is the founder of popular blog Hill House Vintage and the author of Hill House Living: The Art of Creating a Joyful Life.

Charlotte Mullins comments on Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle

This lively double portrait by Scottish artist David Martin captures a moment in the 1770s when two young women lived and played together at Kenwood House in London. They were distant relatives of William, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and Elizabeth Murray, a childless aristocratic couple who raised both girls when their respective mothers died. Both were named Elizabeth, but the girl on the left was nicknamed Dido.

She lived with the Earl and Countess for 31 years. Her father was Rear Admiral Sir John Lindsay, the Earl’s nephew; her mother was Maria Belle, a slave in the British West Indies. Sir John brought six-year-old Dido to England when her mother died. She was baptised in Bloomsbury in 1766, then raised as a lady and equal alongside her second cousin at Kenwood House in London.

In this portrait, Lady Elizabeth wears a child’s apron over her pink floral dress and Dido wears a satin wrapper tied with a blue sash and a turban with an ostrich feather. As Elizabeth looks up from a book, Dido appears to be on the move. She points to her face in a slightly awkward gesture that has previously been interpreted as acknowledging her black skin. Recent research, however, shows this to have been a favourite gesture of the artist’s, one he used in a number of portraits.

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He also painted many other women in similar wrappers and turbans. Martin has only recently been identified as the artist behind this spirited painting. Originally, Dido may have been leaning on something, hence the pose, but Martin opened up the view to show the distant London skyline.

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