Unknown (formerly att. Johann Zoffany)
Dido Elizabeth Belle
oil on canvas
Scone Palace, Perth (private collection of the Earl of Mansfield)
Although this painting falls outside the usual scope of this blog, it is one of my favorite historical European paintings. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and enslaved African woman named Belle.
This painting was most likely commissioned by her father, the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, and depicts the beautiful and vivacious Belle alongside her cousin, Elizabeth Murray.
The first time I saw this painting was in an art history classroom, accompanied by a story regarding the dehumanization of Africans in the Unites States, and the scores of visiting Americans who were scandalized by this painting. In America and several places in Europe, contemporaneous paintings always depicted people considered Black in subservient positions in relation to people considered White, if they bothered to paint them at all. To raise a bastard daughter of color alongside legitimate heirs was antithetical to American thought.
Dido Belle was raised and educated alongside the other highborn daughters of the household, and remained a favorite of the Earl and her father well into her thirties, after which an advantageous marriage was arranged.
Her position in the Earl’s household supervising the poultry yards was typical for any lady of high birth at the time, but her job overseeing the lord’s correspondence was usually a task reserved for a highly educated male clerk or scribe and is evidence of her importance and elevated rank. She received an allowance of £30 per year, more than any except the heiress herself and a sum unheard of at the time for any illegitimate daughter.
Upon Lord Mansfield’s death in 1788, Belle was furnished with a £500 lump sum in addition to a £100 annuity, as well as a suitable marriage to John Davinier, with whom she had three children. In Mansfield’s will, her status as a free person was carefully confirmed, since many would have been all too happy to divest her of her fortune.
Belle died in 1804 and was interred in St. George’s Fields, the parish to which she and her husband belonged.
My interest in this story was renewed recently when I learned that an upcoming film, Belle (currently in production), will be a dramatized biopic of Dido Elizabeth Belle’s life. The titular role will be played by South African actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
VICTIM OR VILLAIN?: The true story of Franziska Schanzkowska (Anna Anderson) and the tragic death of Grand Duchess Anastasia - exceprts from The Resurrection of the Romanovs: Anastasia, Anna Anderson, and the World’s Greatest Royal Mystery by Greg King & Penny Wilson
In 1967, in an unguarded moment while speaking with Alexei Miliukov, Franziska [Anna Anderson] spoke of “who I am, and who I pretend to be.”It was the second and last time that she admitted her deception, but the remark passed unnoticed. Propelled by favorable assumptions and a shifting prism of truth, Franziska’s story spiraled beyond her own control and entered the realm of legend, where the few verifiable facts of her case slipped into obscurity as the myth assumed a life of its own.
Was she victim or villain? The portrait of Franziska that emerges is neither black nor white, neither entirely calculated nor ruled by a confused mind. From a nomadic childhood, a youth of indulgence and unsavory rumors, she developed into a singular young woman of fragile emotions and warring personalities, deprived of maternal affection and bereft of comforting influences. Her experiences in Berlin — the loss of a fiancé,pregnancy, the accident at AEG — shattered whatever stability she had temporarily achieved; a nervous breakdown led to involuntary commitment, to declarations of insanity.tacked at Gut-Friederikenhof, left physically battered, she staggered from crisis to crisis, from impoverished despair to rumors of prostitution until the weight of ahopeless life drove her into the waters of the Landwehr canal.
And Anastasia? When the remains of Olga, Tatiana, and Marie were exhumed from the mass grave in 1991, each had their femurs intact; the discovery of a fragmented female femur [in 2007], as Dr. Coble wryly noted, closed the door to any idea of “Yurovsky taking a portion of the femurs from the first grave and sneakily burying them nearby.” The shattered femur, shown to belong to a female, shown to be from a daughter of Nicholas and a few charred bone fragments were all that remained of Russia’s most famous Grand Duchess.The myth that Franziska had made seem so real, for so many years, was over: Anastasia was no longer missing.
PHOTOS: Top - Franziska Shanzkowska at age 16 (left) and shortly after her claim c. 1922 (right). Middle & Bottom - Anastasia toward the end of her life: 1916 (middle left), 1917 (middle right), 1917 (bottom left), 1916 (middle left)
Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier + Herbert James Gunn
It was the hands in Gunn’s paintings that made me think of Dr. Maurier - the way they rest idly, and yet the eyes are so controlled and observant. In amongst the sharp colours and elegant enviroments - those are eyes that see.
Heaven knows how you lied to me. You’re not the way you seemed.You look like an angel, walk like an angel, talk like an angel, but I got wise. You’re the devil in disguise.