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  • Joanne Major

A reimagining of Dido Elizabeth Belle

Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761. Her mother was an African slave, Maria Bell, and her father a British aristocrat, Captain John Lindsay. (A career naval officer who became an admiral, Lindsay was twice knighted by George III.) Maria was brought to England by Lindsay before Dido’s birth and Dido was brought up in the household of her paternal great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, as one of the family. Although she was never a slave, in his will, Lord Mansfield confirmed Dido's freedom when he wrote his will.


There is one known contemporary portrait of Dido. In it, she appears in a turban and robe, holding a basket of fruit, alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Etienne Daly, who has researched Dido’s life for many years, believes that the turban Dido wears belonged to her father. Captain Lindsay had served in India and been invested as a Knight of the Bath there, in 1771. He was presented with a ring and ceremonial dress made of gold brocade, made after the European manner by the Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah.


Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray © Kenwood House/English Heritage


Etienne believes that the portrait was most likely a collaboration between Allan Ramsay, a relative of the family, and Ramsay’s protégé, David Martin.


Etienne recently commissioned a miniature portrait of Dido, in the style of Andrew Plimer. He chose Edwina Hannam to paint this miniature, and I'm delighted that Etienne has permitted me to share it on my blog. It gives a wonderful insight into how Dido may have looked a few years on from the portrait above. Also, how she may have appeared wearing a powdered peruke, so fashionable at the time. It's worth also noting that Andrew Plimer painted two of Dido's aunts (c.1786).


Miniature of Dido Elizabeth Belle by Edwina Hannam, in the style of Andrew Plimer © Etienne Daly


Andrew Plimer, and his brother Nathaniel, both became successful miniaturists. They were born in Shropshire, and their father was a clockmaker. Not wanting to follow in his trade, it is claimed that the brothers ran away with a gang of gypsies who were travelling in the area. They lived with them for a couple of years, before making their way to London. Andrew Plimer gained employment as a manservant to the well-known miniaturist, Richard Cosway. Nathaniel, meanwhile, started working for an enamellist, Henry Bone. Cosway recognised Andrew’s talent and ambition and allowed him to work as a studio assistant. He taught him how to paint in miniature and perhaps also sponsored him to learn under a Soho engraver, John Hall.


Elizabeth Farren, later the Countess of Derby, by Andrew Plimer © Kenwood House/English Heritage


Andrew Plimer’s Dictionary of National Biography entry says of him that:

Plimer's work can be broadly divided into two categories: his early and most successful miniatures, which are usually signed with the initials A. P. on the obverse and dated pre-1790, and his more mannered style of the ensuing years, in which he neither signed nor dated his work. At its best Plimer's work from his first phase is pleasing and highly competent, if a little 'hesitant in attack' (Reynolds, English Portrait Miniatures, 152); his sitters are individualized, their features well modelled, and the fine hatching that was his hallmark is used to good effect in the backgrounds… Though Plimer stopped signing his work during the 1790s it tends to be instantly recognizable because of the stylized treatment he adopted for his sitters in this era. Most of his subjects are depicted facing half to the left on larger ivories of about 6–7 cms in height; the eyes, generally elongated, are given a disarming dominance, and his sky backgrounds have become somewhat formulaic. However, some very fine examples of his work belong to this second phase of his career…

Caroline Price by Andrew Plimer, via Wikimedia


Plimer’s career faded as he aged. He died at his home in Brighton in 1837 and was survived by his wife and four daughters.


Sources

Remington, V. Plimer, Andrew (1763–1837), miniature painter. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Edwina Hannam

Etienne Daly (personal correspondence)

The Leeds Intelligencer, 24 September 1771

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