New portrait of Dido Belle unveiled at Kenwood House
- Credit: Christopher Ison/English Heritage
A new portrait of former Kenwood resident Dido Elizabeth Belle goes on show this week as English Heritage spotlights African figures connected with its properties.
Jamaican artist Mikéla Henry-Lowe was commissioned to paint Dido, who was born to Maria Belle, an African slave in the West Indies, and Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer stationed there.
In 1765, Lindsay brought Dido aged five, to live with his uncle William Murray the Earl of Mansfield at Kenwood House and she stayed with her aristocratic relative until his death in 1793. Portraitist David Martin famously painted Dido in the grounds of the Hampstead Heath mansion with her cousin Elizabeth Murray - but Henry-Lowe depicts her alone, wearing a vibrant green dress.
Henry-Lowe, whose work examines representations of black women and celebrates their beauty, said: "I wanted to paint Dido Belle because a lot of my portraits are of black women wearing head wraps representing black culture, but Dido’s head wrap isn’t cultural. It was most likely to cover her hair because at the time many didn’t know what to do with curly hair. It’s amazing that I’ve been given the opportunity to paint a black woman who experienced growing up in an aristocratic family, because most depictions of black women in Georgian Britain were shown as slaves.”
The painting is one of six historic figures linked to English Heritage sites, commissioned to shed fresh light on the lesser known stories of Africans in England. Painting The Past also includes African-born Roman emperor Septimus Severus at Hadrian's Wall, James Chappell, a 17th-century servant at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter at Osborne House Isle of Wight.
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Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s Curatorial Director, said: “African figures have played significant roles at some of the historic sites but many of their stories are not well known. Placing their portraits on the walls of those sites is one way we hope to bring their stories to life and share them with a wider audience. We are also delighted to be working with these brilliant artists and seeing how they engage with the past, with all its complexities, is inspiring.”
Henry-Lowe studied at Central Saint Martins and her portraits involve breaking down images into patterns and fragments of colour, as a metaphor for breaking down the negative image of Black women.
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