They’ve captivated countless visitors over the years … now two elegant 18th-century women in silks and pearls find themselves caught in the media spotlight.
One of Scone Palace’s best-loved attractions – the portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Murray – is the focus of a Sunday night show that seeks to shed more light on the subjects’ mysterious past.
This sumptuous portrait – endlessly intriguing as it is enchanting – is being scrutinised as never before as newsreader Fiona Bruce and art expert Philip Mould embark on a quest to find out who painted it.
The hosts of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune are not the first to be held in the two women’s thrall, Belle’s enigmatic smile in particular. Her incredible story has inspired not only books, but also a feature film about her life, released in 1994, when Scone Palace became the beneficiary of the portrait.
Dido Elizabeth Belle was the mixed-race daughter of an African slave Maria Belle and British naval captain, Sir John Lindsay. When Maria died relatively young, Sir John asked his uncle and aunt, the Earl and Countess of Mansfield, to look after Dido.
They were already guardians to their niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray and brought up Dido as a free, educated girl at Kenwood House, Hampstead, where the portrait was painted. It shows Lady Elizabeth and Dido Belle sitting on a bench, Dido coyly point to her face and holding a bowl of fruit.
Until the 1990s, the painting was simply known as The Lady Elizabeth Murray and the identity of Belle was unknown.
The portrait’s creator has long been thought to be German neoclassical painter
Art experts too have lost themselves in hours of speculation. Why does Dido appear to be rushing past Elizabeth? Why is she pointing at her cheek? Is it meant to draw attention to her skin colour, or simply to her smile? A more recent theory suggests an allusion to the Hindu deity, Krishna
Painted with extraordinary skill, the picture is unusually positive in its depiction of a black sitter at a time when Britain was still heavily engaged in the slave trade. But it is also an intriguing whodunit – who is the artist who broke with the conventions of the time to paint this exceptional work?
"The Dido painting is always a favourite with visitors and it still fascinates me,”
Whatever the answer, Dido Belle remains something of an icon, who can’t help but fascinate. There’s a brisk trade at the palace gift shop of portrait reproductions; cropped images showing Dido, alone and smiling; as well as pocket mirrors, key rings, and magnetic notepads.
Now, the current Lady Mansfield – who will host an exclusive Dido Belle evening at the Palace on 1 November 1 – is determined to discover the artist’s identity.
"The Dido painting is always a favourite with visitors and it still fascinates me,” she says.
“It poses all sorts of questions about race, identity and class. It was a treat to work with Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould. I have always wanted to know who actually painted the picture."
Fake or Fortune? airs on BBC One on Sunday, September 2. For more information, visit the BBC website.
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