The portrait of Dido and Elizabeth, Kenwood House.18 minute read

In Kenwood House, one of the most quintessential British stately homes, hangs a copy of an eighteenth-century portrait displaying two of its inhabitants: Dido Elizabeth Belle (Dido) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Elizabeth), sitting as one of the most enigmatic portraits in history. Born to a slave mother, Maria Belle, and Naval officer Sir John Lindsay, Dido held a place in society unheard of for her time as she inhabited Kenwood House under the care of her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice1 of the time. It rightly attracts much attention as depicted are two young women whose positions in society are juxtaposed, displaying intersecting oppressions and roles as oppressors, and inviting the viewer to question this dynamic in our society today.

 

Figure one 1779 Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray
Figure 1: 1779 Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray

Using this portrait of Dido and Elizabeth, I will seek to illustrate that from a British cultural perspective Dido’s place in society is Othered and culturally dislocated (Cherry 2006, p.688), which to an extent reflects the experiences Black British identity due to continuities of British culture. These similarities will be analysed from a British cultural perspective because of its historical hold on geopolitical spaces through imperialism evokes interest about the extent to which Britain still holds ideological dominion over ex-colonised peoples and how this is spatialised. The priority of this essay will involve understanding Dido’s portrait through the eighteenth century and contemporary British cultural lens. This is characterised as palimpsestuous (Dillon, 2005) and fluid, existing as interwoven layered elements of British identity, particularly analysing race. For my argument, I will begin by examining the portrait and its Othering location in Kenwood House. Following this theme, I will next deconstruct the representations of Dido in the portrait, using a discursive analysis to locate its contextual meanings in eighteenth-century Britain and any commonalities this has with today. Thirdly, I will analyse the original exotification of the portrait, and how this continuously served to commodify black bodies. My fourth analysis will examine Dido’s representation in the feature film Belle (2013), contrasting differing cultural perspectives to understand the comparative relationships to race, space and the Other.

 


British Cultural perspective – ‘the human landscape can be read as a landscape of exclusion’ (Sibley, 1995, p.ix)

 

Figure two 1774 century artwork of Kenwood House
Figure 2: 1774 century artwork of Kenwood House

This essay will use a British perspective to analyse the eighteenth-century portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth because it allows us to analyse the extent to which imperialism has influenced Othering in modern British culture. As this scope is quite broad, we will exclusively focus on British cultural understanding regarding race (specifically black culture in London) for two

reasons. Firstly, the portrait of Dido and her cousin is situated in racial politics with its anachronistic representation of a black3,

aristocratic woman, allowing for more analytical and critical discussion4. Secondly, there is an inherent element of Whiteness5 which dominates British cultural dynamics and strongly underpins ‘Othering’ through its shifting, historical exclusivity (Deliovsky

& Kitossa, 2013; Green, Sonn, & Matsebula, 2007; Warren & Twine, 1997). This alludes to the racialisation of social and spatial exclusion6 which characterises British culture (Sibley, 1995), and contributes to the othering of black spaces, experiences and perspectives. This essay takes the view that Black British experiences cannot be separated from the British cultural narrative, following Dillon’s assertion that culture and history are examples of ‘involuted palimpsestuous space’ (2014, p.83) in which the

discourses of the colonized and colonizer are ‘interwoven, each affecting, infecting and inhabiting the other’ (2005, p.255). By analysing the perspective of British culture as a whole but recognising its sub-groups, we can examine its intricacies and take a palimpsestuous approach (Marshall, Staehall, & Kastrissikans, 2017), to better understand the cultural narrative concerning othering and dislocation (Cherry, 2006 p. 668) when examining the enigmatic portrait of these two juxtaposed subjects. This essay in particular will seek to use this perspective to detangle the palimpsest of British culture in relation to race and engage a ‘palimpsestuous reading…creating relations where there may, or should, be none’ (Dillon, 2005, p.254) by linking themes of representation and cultural meanings. This will use key readings of Hall (1997), Sibley (1995), Andrews (2017), and Dillon (2005), amongst others.

 


Dido Elizabeth Belle – The Cultural Enigma of the ‘Other’

The portrayal of Dido has always been fundamentally out of place, despite the portrait copy7 being exhibited at her home, Kenwood House; an archetypical Georgian stately home upholding traditional British high culture through its collections of classic artworks, British Heritage status, and location overlooking Hampstead, one of London’s oldest and wealthiest villages. As Kenwood’s website invites us to ‘step into England’s story’ (Kenwood House, 2017), the portrait’s location and depiction make us question the extent to which Dido features in this story’s telling. Perceived by eighteenth-century Britain as a ‘mulatta’, which (both today and historically) racialized her as ‘black’, her Othering resulted from her conflicting race and social status calling her place of belonging into question. Even in her own home – she is dislocated in such a way that Otherness is defined within it rather than in relation to it. From a British perspective, this culturally dissonant representation reflects the fluid socio-spatial marginalisation of Black British people in London. For example, the luxurious and expansive rooms of Kenwood House are covered with ornate paintings, asserting authority by physically looming over the viewer as they would have been displayed originally (see appendix, Fig 9); each room is finely decorated and assigned a volunteer for visitor information and guidance. In contrast, Dido’s portrait hangs in the far more plain and humble ‘housekeeper’s room’, physically removed from the other impressive collections, hanging unilluminated with a single other portrait across from Kenwood’s dollhouse for child entertainment. Similarly, in the integration of Black history with standardised British history, like the location of the portrait, black experience, identity and impact is confined to an underwhelming social and virtual space within British cultural discourse. It is studied for a single month, and fails to enter the public spheres. Although these parallels do not presume to be exact, they show a fluid and continuous perception of blackness by British culture, through the spatialisation and prioritisation of white British representations over that of the Other.

To examine this theme of racialized Othering further, a critical analysis of the portrait’s portrayal of these women is necessary. From a British lens, this portrait attempts to map Dido’s uncertain status, demonstrated by records suggesting that she was ‘neither a servant not a fully-fledged member of society’ (Bryant, 1990, p.28), resulting in her becoming a cultural enigma. Therefore, there is strong reason to suggest that this portrait is a product of Britain’s new ‘taxonomic systems’, (Duncan & Lay, 1993) as the eighteenth century brought a stronger thirst for knowledge acquisition in Britain, especially of the Other This was as Britain, which had always defined itself in relation to others, centring whiteness as the civilised norm while the ‘non-European Other’ was ‘fit only to be a servant’ or ‘fallen savage’ (Duncan & Lay, 1993, p.46; Bragg, 2001, 11:46). This reflects on Black British culture with the adoption of pseudoscientific classification by race by British culture – a social rather than biological Othering construct. Extending from the stereotypes, racial Othering became based on non-white connotations. Furthermore, Dido’s semi- integrated portrayal, is symbolised in her name8, which juxtaposes African and English connotations and represents the conflict found within her identity. This links closely to how Black British identity requires a suffix to when formally recognising their place in society. This is because as their identities are defined in relation to their proximity to Britain and is represented through feelings of being ‘forever outsiders’ (ETHNOS, 2006).

This portrait of Dido represents what Barthes (1972) describes as ‘myth’, as it adheres to and communicates with contemporary ideologies. In many ways, this relates to how maps, through their social constructions of space (Crampton, 2001) confine cultural ideologies and motives to a two dimensional space. Reading the Othering of Dido in this portrait like a map has critical use because as a mode of representation, especially in regard to “strategies and relations of power relations” (Campton 2001 p.243) the distances, objects, and other elements of the space should be read in relation to each other. hence we understand Dido’s Otherness in relation to Elizabeth as we examine what is portrayed and why. At first glance the painting seems to portray Dido and Elizabeth as equals in status and power, especially when compared to other portraits of the time; for example, they are both wearing fine ‘expensive silk gown and necklace’ (Kenwood House B, 2017), one is not physically ‘above’ the other, and neither’s expression is subservient (see appendix A). However, using Barthes’ (1967) discursive techniques, which draw on De Sassure’s semiology (2013) of the signified and the signifier, Dido’s inferior status becomes clear. She stands off-centre, angled to the left and partially obscured behind Elizabeth. This description constitutes a ‘denotation’, and according to Hall, when this is conceptualised and understood, it becomes a ‘connotation’ and can be applied to ‘broader cultural themes, concepts or meanings’ (1997, p.38). When decoding these components through to the ‘language’ or the system of codes used in an 18thC context, the most obvious reading is that Dido inhabits an inferior status to Elizabeth. This is presented through her spatial location and exotification within the painting. Dido’s image is marginalised though her positioning to the left of centre and occupying less space of the painting relative to Elizabeth, who’s front profile confronts the viewer, and conforms to normal standard of portraiture for a woman of her status at the time. British culture racialized Dido according to its taxonomy of the other, and this can be traced onto the experience of the Black British collective. Through a lack of institutional representation, the portrayed narrative conforms to the British cultural narrative, Othering them through the lack of power.

Additionally, Dido is Othered as a subject in this painting because of her exotification by the British taxonomic system. She is depicted wearing a white ostrich-feathered turban as she carries a platter of various (non-British) fruits while pointing to her kind and welcoming face, suggesting a suppliant disposition. Under the British empire, these were all cultural and religious symbols or ‘artefacts’ of other geographical spaces which the British asserted imperial dominance over – both physically and with their power to redefine meaning. This made the subsequent objects of the ‘non-European Other’, ‘exotic and endlessly intriguing’ (Duncan & Lay, 1993, p.46), an analysis which can be directly applied to this portrait. Dido is presented as an object of curiosity – out of time, without place and space, presented as part of a collection of world goods which have been displaced and centred in London (with the contrast heightened by St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background), Dido’s image is commodified through her fetishisation (Marx, 1867) by British society. It appeals to the interests and fascinations of ‘mass culture’. Commodified as a spectacle, the representation of Dido as the fetishized, racialized Other is not as unique as it may seem. This imperial lens can be seen as contributing to a separate part of British culture, as Aubrey (1999) examines how the notoriety, novelty and subsequent success of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, could have been ‘marketised’ for the fetishisation and commodification of his radicalised Other. Supporting the idea that this exotification exists today is the success of the movie Belle (2013), as it tells the story that many infer from Dido’s portrait. In British society today, racialized Othering through fetishisation comes in many forms, with one of the most prominent yet under-researched being the overly-sexualised objectification of black bodies (Dines, 1998) in the pornography industry . In the virtual space of pornography, black bodies are racially Othered into a separate category where, similar to Dido relative to Elizabeth, they are often placed occupying a demeaning position relative to a white counter-part. This Othering representation causes cultural conflict because, just as Dido was bequeathed five times less than Elizabeth after Lord Mansfield died (Adams, 1984), black pornographic actors earn significantly less than their white counterparts – suggesting an unequal racialized valuation within British culture. Dido’s commodification through the exotification and objectification by British culture, both reflects and contributes to the imperialist themes underpinning British values

 


Shifting perspectives? In Belle (2013)

Finally, an examination of Belle (2013), allows for a critical analysis, centring the racialized Othered of modern Britain’s representation of Dido and her painting. With Belle’s release in 2013, we see Dido’s narrative entering contemporary ‘mass media’, as the fictional portrayal of her unique story is marketised, then consumed on a world stage – itself constructing the cultural narrative it is defined by. The recent commemorations of other Black imperial figures who have contributed to British culture such as Mary Seacole, Nelson Mandela and the Black War Heroes Memorial. further hint at the potential re- shifting of the portrayal of the racialized Other. This is further supported by these artefacts having been displayed in London within the last decade (2007-2017), spatializing Black British contributions by installing them into classic urban British landscapes where they are public, situated in mass consumer sites. However, Britain’s modern perspectives, much like the hierarchical powers of its empire, are defined through a cultural capitalism which dominates cultural and economic norms, ideologies and spaces.

Therefore, through Belle (2013), Dido’s narrative becomes commodified, bound by the capitalism which underpins the new interpretations of Dido’s painting (BBC, 2012). For example, it’s PG rating limits potential ‘adult themes’, such as those involving race and slavery, thus failing to give an accurate representation of Dido’s life. The need for the narrative to be ‘accessible’ to the majority within society prioritises the mythology (Barthes, 1972) of truth, thus ‘Othering’ the actual Dido from the story of her own existence. Andrews (2016) recognises this and heavily criticises the feature film, stating that it is a ‘historical hallucination’ which centres an ethnocentric representation of Dido’s life. From a British perspective, Belle (2013) seeks to re-appropriate Dido’s portrait in order to recreate a palatable narrative in which Dido is entirely passive, relying on a series of archetypical British ‘heroes’ to rescue her from slavery, raise her as ‘almost completely unaware of its horrors’ (Andrews, 2016, pg.444), contrasted to the fictionalised characters who intentionally exotify and present mild racist attitudes towards Belle. This sorts the British people around her into categories of good and bad, showing that her place lies with her heroic uncle and love interest; whereas in reality, she was Othered by British society itself – there was never any ‘place’ for her. As a final blow to her source character, the films’ Belle sees the unveiling of the portrait of Dido and Elizabeth, and remarks on how relieved she is that they are depicted as equals, despite the deep inequalities this essay has found prior in this portrait from a cursory analysis. This represents the palimpsestuous nature of culture as imperial narratives come to the fore, showing that themes of Othering may be subtle but, like Dido’s original portrait are still contemporary in British culture.

To conclude, whilst examining the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a British perspective has allowed this essay to examine how its intra-cultural dynamics spatially interact with this portrait, helping it to critically examine the themes of Othering and displacement in regard to race. This reflects the meaning of Dido’s portrait back into Black British experiences as a sub-culture of Britain which has been especially helpful regarding the new British taxonomic system deepening the pre-existing divide between ‘European’ and ‘Other’, a colonial hang-over which is still underpins the British lens today. This helps us explain how despite preliminary impressions, every aspect of Dido’s eighteenth-century portrait is Othered and dislocated to show her inferior status; in it, her position is both literally and figuratively marginalised, she as a human is objectified and exoticised, and finally the painting’s location in the house is separate from the other portraits and trappings worthy of Kenwood’s status. She is, in short, portrayed as entirely anatopistic despite posing in the grounds of her own home. With modern British cultural perspectives, come new technology, changing attitudes, and finally some small recognition of Black British contributions; for Dido however, the original Othering portrayed by her painting is merely given a new, modern slant as she is marginalised by her own movie. Her portrayal has always been representative of the Othering of Black British culture in that she has been completely unable to dictate or even participate in her own narrative. Therefore, she cannot gain cultural agency despite any post-imperial cultural ‘advances’ due to the all-pervading resistance in the British cultural lens to sharing space with the Other (as seen in how Belle is one of only two big British movies which examine the period of Transatlantic slavery). To resolve this, after using a palimpsestic understanding of culture to critique shifts in cultural perspectives, we assert that the layering of culture is formed by the constant rewriting of what it means to be British. This is taken to mean that although a re-orientation of cultural perspectives is possible, its lens is interwoven with the past and focussed by dominant groups, as is shown with the multi-layered critical analysis of the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle.

 

Justice Aina


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