Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray later Finch-Hatton, attributed to Zoffany. Courtesy of The Earl of Mansfield at Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland
A new exhibition at Kenwood House, Hampstead weaves together the legislative history of Lord Mansfield, and the extraordinary story of his cousin's daughter, a Black girl named Dido Belle.
Still undergoing revision as new facts emerge, Kim Sherwood finds that this exhibition approaches its subject with delicacy and superb story-telling.
In the mid to late 18th century Kenwood was owned by Lord Mansfield. A senior legal figure, his judgements became monumental stepping-stones towards the abolition of the slave trade. His choices and motives have been fiercely debated ever since.
Engagingly presented in paintings, case notes and witness reports, the exhibition includes accounts of the James Somerset and Zong trials.
Detail from the painting. Courtesy of the Earl of Mansfield.
Somerset, an enslaved African was brutally beaten and, having escaped, was caught and readied to be sent to Jamaica. He was brought before Mansfield under the habeas corpus act (‘present the body’). Asked to decide when a man is free, Lord Mansfield ruled after five months’ deliberation that forcibly sending Somerset abroad because ‘he absented himself from his service or for any other cause’ was illegal as ‘no authority can be found for it in the laws of this country and therefore… James Somerset must be discharged’.
This ruling was interpreted to mean that all enslaved people in England must be ‘discharged’ and gave great momentum to the abolitionists. Lord Mansfield however, after considering the potential economic collapse following abolition and legal precedence against abolishing slavery, made it clear he intended the ruling to pertain only to Somerset.
Detail from a painting of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield
The Zong case was even more contentious. Zong was a slaving vessel from which 132 men, women and children were thrown overboard, and drowned, so that the owners could claim compensation. The case outraged much of the public. The insurers’ demanded compensation for the lost ‘cargo’. Abolitionist Olaudah Equiano notified Granville Sharp who took the case to Lord Mansfield.
Mansfield branded it “shocking”. After originally awarding the insurers £300, he decided a human being could not be insured and called for a retrial. The slavers and insurers withdrew their case, and from then on no one could insure enslaved people, once again leading to a re-examination of this ‘odious’ trade.
The extent to which Lord Mansfield’s rare position as legal guardian over Dido Belle affected his judgment is debated. Daughter of his cousin, a naval captain, and a free black woman, Dido was brought to England and openly taken into Lord Mansfield’s care.
The exhibition focuses on a large portrait of Dido Belle and a white great-niece of Lord Mansfield’s, Lady Elizabeth. The portrait does not, unlike its contemporaries, push Dido to the side or use her as an exotic accessory, as seen in Kenwood’s portrait of Lady Henrietta whose hand is placed on a most probably fictional black boy as a fashionable or narrative element. Dido wears a similar silk gown to Lady Elizabeth, whose hand rests on her arm in an affectionate gesture, showing, as many documents do, that Dido was very close to her cousins.
Photo: Kenwood House, Hampstead
Presented as equally beautiful, the painting if anything emphasises Dido’s skin colour. She wears a white turban and pearls, probably reserved for formal occasions, which unlike artefacts of exoticism in other paintings, are presented with elegance.
The portrait is much debated: is she carrying fruit as if on an errand, is her finger placed to her cheek coquettishly or in fact to emphasise her skin colour? Just as this remarkable case draws attention today, it drew much talk in its own day. A visiting American loyalist, Hutchinson, remarked:
"A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies and after…walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other… He [Lord Mansfield] calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her - I dare say not criminal".
The current Lady Mansfield visits the exhibiton at Kenwood House.
Dido acted as a secretary for Mansfield, and is shown through financial accounts and visitors’ reports to have been treated as a loved member of the family, looking after Lord Mansfield with his other nieces following his wife’s death.
In his will Lord Mansfield, aware of the possibility of Dido being grabbed on the streets as many of the free black population were, stated: "I confirm to Dido Elizabeth Belle her Freedom". Some thought Dido greatly affected Lord Mansfield, as seen in Hutchinson’s further words:
“A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship… a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgement his Lordship would give? ‘No doubt’ he answered ‘he will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family’ ".
William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield
However, being seven years old during the Somerset case, this overreaching dominance is refuted by many researchers, while others see the length of Lord Mansfield’s deliberations testament to the struggle between his feelings towards Dido and slavery itself, and common law.
This exhibition, held in the beautiful halls of Kenwood, is presented clearly with fascinating artefacts from the time. It tracks England’s legislative journey to the official abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1838.
Dido Belle meanwhile presents a strange irony in this wonderfully researched display: her last known relative was a white South African living free under apartheid. Illuminating, well-meaning and thorough, this is a captivating day out.