Posted by: Bystander PJ8 JAN 2014
Kenwood House, on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath, was reopened by English Heritage a few weeks ago after a two-year restoration programme costing £6m. The house is well known for its collection of paintings by artists such as Vermeer, Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Hals, Turner and Landseer.
Kenwood and its artworks were left to the nation by the first Earl of Iveagh, who was a keen art collector. Iveagh died in 1927, only two years after buying the house from descendants the first Earl of Mansfield, who had bought the 17th century property in 1754 and commissioned Robert Adam to remodel it.
An intriguing early resident of Kenwood was Dido Belle. Born around 1761 in the West Indies, she was the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy warship captain, John Lindsay, and an African slave known as Maria Belle.
Lindsay was Lord Mansfield’s nephew, and he sent Dido to join the Mansfield household at Kenwood. The earl and countess were childless and were already raising an orphaned relative, Lady Elizabeth Murray, who was about the same age as Dido.
Although the illegitimate child of a black slave, Dido seems to have been welcomed as a member of the family. Initially she was a playmate for Elizabeth and later her personal attendant — though she was more a lady’s companion than a lady’s maid, receiving an allowance several times the wage of any domestic servant. The house has a fascinating painting of the two young women in 1779.
Dido later helped the earl with his correspondence and took over the running of Kenwood’s dairy and poultry yard (a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry). After some 30 years at Kenwood, she left to marry in 1793. She died in 1804.
Historians have suggested that Dido’s presence in his household may have helped the earl develop his famed revulsion for slavery. In 1772, as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, he made a legal decision that led to freedom for about 15,000 slaves who had been brought to Britain. This paved the way for emancipation in Britain’s colonies in 1833.