Belle3

Part of the history of Kenwood House in north London hits the big screen this week with the premiere of the film Belle.

The film, which opens on Friday, is inspired by the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a slave woman named Maria, who spent her childhood years at the property in the care of her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (played by Tom Wilkinson) in the second half of the 18th century.

The idea for film was apparently sparked when Belle‘s writer Misan Sagay saw a painting of Dido which hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland (a copy of the painting, which was formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany but is now unattributed, can be seen hanging in the Housekeeper’s Room at Kenwood).

Lauren Houlistan, English Heritage senior curator, says Dido grew up at Kenwood from about the age of five (about 1766) and seemed to have been considered one of the family.

She says that while Lord Mansfield was “very fond of her”, Dido’s position was, however, “lower than that of her white, legitimate cousin, Elizabeth – Dido was given a smaller allowance and is noted as only joining visitors after dinner”. Dido is known to have managed the dairy at Kenwood in 1779 and was described as “superintendent” over the daily and poultry yard (for more on Dido’s extraordinary life, see our earlier post here).

Kenwood House was undergoing restoration when the film was being made so scenes for the film set in the house were shot at various other English Heritage properties including Chiswick House and the Ranger’s House in Greenwich.

WHERE: Kenwood House, Hampstead Lane, Hampstead (nearest Tube stations are Golders Green and Archway/nearest train stations are Gospel Oak and Hampstead Heath); WHEN: 10am to 5pm daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/kenwood/.

PICTURE: Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle and Sarah Gadon Lady Elizabeth Murray and  in Belle. © Twentieth Century Fox.

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Having had an extended May Bank Holiday, Exploring London returns with our usual coverage this week…

The subject of the new film Belle, the life of Georgian-era Dido Elizabeth Belle was nothing short of extraordinary.

Belle2Born in 1761, Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and Maria Belle, an African woman who had apparently been captured from a Spanish ship when Havana was captured from the Spanish in 1762 (Lindsay had captained a ship in the fight).

Baptised at St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, in 1766, Lindsay subsequently sent Dido to live with his uncle William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield – Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Initially residing at the family house in Bloomsbury Square and later at Kenwood House in Hampstead, she was raised alongside her orphaned cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray who was also in the earl’s care.

She spent some 30 years living at the property and while her status remains something of a mystery, it is thought she was treated more as a companion to Lady Murray than a servant – indeed her familiarity with Lady Murray did prove somewhat shocking to some. Her presence in the house also led to some criticism of Lord Mansfield’s judgements in cases related to slavery.

Following the Earl of Mansfield’s death in 1793, Belle – who has acted as his secretary later in his life – was awarded £500 outright and a £100 annuity and had her freedom confirmed in Mansfield’s will. In December that year she married a Frenchman and gentleman’s steward (possibly at Kenwood House), John Davinier, at St George’s Hanover Square, London. The couple are believed to have had at least three sons and lived in Pimlico before Belle’s death in 1804. She was buried in St George’s Fields and her remains were later moved when the area was redeveloped in the mid-20th century.

A turbaned Belle is famously depicted in a portrait with Lady Murray which now hangs in Scone Palace at Perth in Scotland (property of the current Earl of Mansfield). The portrait was formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany but it’s now generally accepted it was not created by him.

Belle, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, opens in the UK next month.