By David Dabydeen
Last updated 2011-02-17
Black people depicted in aristocratic settings are overwhelmingly male, expressionless and servile. Images of black women in the art of the period usually depict prostitutes, beggars and other members of 'low' society. Not so Dido in Zoffany's painting. She is the very picture of privilege and equality with white aristocracy.
Dido Elizabeth Lindsay was born around 1763. She was reputedly the daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a captain in the Royal Navy, and an enslaved woman whom he rescued from a captive Spanish ship and took to England. Dido was brought up in Kenwood House, Hampstead, the home of her great uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield. The couple were childless and also took charge of Dido's cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray.
When Sir John died in 1788, he left in his will a generous sum for Dido. From Lord Mansfield she inherited £500 and an annuity of £100. Lord Mansfield apparently doted on her.
Lord Mansfield was lord chief justice and it was he who, in 1772, gave the historic decision that a master could not forcibly remove his slaves from England. Prior to this decision, it was common practice for British-based black slaves to be sold on to the New World plantations when they proved to be disruptive or when their masters needed to raise money. It may well be that Lord Mansfield's close relationship with Dido made him more sympathetic to the plight of enslaved people.
Zoffany depicts Dido as an exotic young woman, dressed in satin and silk and wearing an ostrich-feathered turban studded with pearls. Her rich, dusky colour is reflected in the nearby platter of lush fruit and is in strong contrast to the milky-white skin of her cousin. Lady Elizabeth's outstretched arm reveals the affection in which Dido is held. Both of them face the viewer, indicating social equality.
This is a rare event in British portraiture. Black people (almost always servants or slaves) are made to look up to their white masters and mistresses, who invariably ignore their gaze, looking out to the viewer instead.