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To revisit Kenwood’s ‘treasures’…

09 August, 2019

Kenwood’s painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray

• JEFFREY Sawtell (Treasures mapped, Review, August 1) looked at some of the paintings at Kenwood House.

The painting of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray is not by Thomas Gainsborough but by David Martin. Kenwood House contains a copy; the original is in Scone Palace, Perthshire, the seat of Lord Mansfield.

It was the first Lord Mansfield who was the Lord Chief Justice who presided over the notable trial freeing the slave Somerset, not Lord Hamilton, as Sawtell claims.

He calls the portrait “problematic”, suggesting Lady Elizabeth Murray is pushing aside her illegitimate cousin, Dido. Most people looking at the portrait see only harmony and joy.

Would Mansfield, who was accused by slavers of being too fond of his great niece, have commissioned a portrait in which she is being pushed aside by his legitimate great niece?

All the evidence is that the two girls were brought up as affectionate sisters. Elizabeth’s gesture seems caring, not aggressive.

This portrait is exceptional in depicting affection between races at this time, contradicting what Sawtell calls the “obvious relationship between owner and slave”.

In fact, Dido was never a slave. Lord Mansfield made a generous settlement on her in his will and stipulated clearly that she should never become a slave.

As for Sawtell’s opinions on Rembrandt, can we really refer to his sublime self-portraits as “selfies”? Rembrandt was not reduced to poverty by his depiction of The Night Watch as “a bit the worse for wear after a night on the drink”.

That sub-text is certainly there but the painting was proclaimed a work of genius in its day. Rembrandt was reduced to poverty by changes in artistic fashion and by Dutch Protestant morality.

Finally, it is not clear what Sawtell means by saying that Admiral Lord Nelson was a “working- class hero”. He was certainly a hero to the working-class but came himself from the middle-class.

His father was a Church of England clergyman with strong connections in the Admiralty. Nelson was quickly enrolled as a midshipman, a trainee officer, referred to at the time as a “young gentleman”.

ROGER ELLIOTT
Makepeace Avenue, N6

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