by Kay

In February, we will be celebrating Black History Month. We always create some kind of flyer, poster, slide, or advertisement to mark the month, but have you ever wondered just what some of those images are that we use? Let's take a look at some of the images used in the making of our flyer for Black History Month 2017, starting with this one.
Sometimes when people see something, they don't actually look at it. Around 1779, a painting was finished which requires a closer look. Originally titled "The Lady Elizabeth Murray," it hung in Kenwood House, located in England - at least until 1990. Then someone looked at it and started to ask questions; I know I did when I first saw it. I remember saying to myself, "There's a story behind that painting."

At first your eyes encounter a young white girl with a slight smile on her face. She’s seated on a bench, she has a ring of flowers on her head and a book on her lap. She is quiet. Then your eyes wander to the other girl in the portrait. This girl is not quiet. She is actually laughing, she's up to something, she's in motion; it appears that she has been caught in the act of standing up. She seems to be having fun. It’s almost as she has a secret and she’s not going to tell us what it is. And, she is black. Oh sure, there are other old paintings with black people in them, but there is a difference with this one. To me, this painting suggests the two girls are on equal footing; there is a shared affection between them. They are both dressed in the height of fashion in some very luxurious dresses and they are both also wearing pearls. This is more than just a painting of a slave and her mistress. This painting forces us to ask questions. Who are these two? Where is the black girl hurrying off to? Why is she pointing to her cheek, why does she have basket of fruit in her arms? Is the white girl gently holding her back or urging her onward?

Here's what we know: This is a portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. At the time of this painting both Dido and Elizabeth were around 18 years old. They grew up together, were cousins, companions and friends. Dido and Elizabeth were left with their uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield after their mothers died. They both seemed to have arrived on their uncle’s doorsteps around 1766 - separately. The big difference was that Dido was illegitimate and her mother was a black slave while Elizabeth's mother was white and married. It seems that the Earl had great affection for both of his nieces, making sure that they were both well cared for.

It was during the time Dido lived in the Earl's household that he made some landmark judgements in England. You see not only was he a Lord, he was also Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. One of the cases which was brought before him was the Somersett Case (1772). He held that slavery had no basis in common law and had never been established by legislation in England, and therefore was not binding law. This case paved the way for ending slavery in England. Did Dido play a part in his decision? We will never know.

"Belle," a movie loosely based on Dido’s, life was released in 2013. There are not too many facts out there about Dido's life, she left no journals or diaries that we know of. What we do know is she married and was the mother of three boys. And, we know she died at the age of 43. Sad to say, we can only visualize her life based on the lives of the people around her and an intriguing painting which was left behind. The portrait of the two girls now hangs in the Murray families Scottish residence, Scone Palace.

For more about Dido, read Dido Elizabeth Belle by Fergus Mason and Belle: the Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne, or check out the movie, Belle.