Belle, a movie partly filmed in the Isle of Man and released across Britain last week, was inspired by the true story of a mixed race woman named Dido Elizabeth Belle.
She was born in the West Indies as the daughter of a Scottish admiral and an African slave woman but at about the age of nine was sent to England to live at the mansion just outside London of her great uncle, who was no less a person than the Lord Chief Justice of England, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, a man who has gone down in history for making some landmark judgements which paved the way for the eventual abolition of Britain’s slave trade, which was prolific at that time.
The film’s writers, Misan Sangay and Amma Asante (who took over the writing when Miss Sangay had to step down from the production due to illness), were particularly inspired by a 1779 portrait at the Earl of Mansfield’s birthplace of Scone Palace, near Perth in Scotland, showing Dido Elizabeth Belle with her white cousin and fellow ward of the Earl of Mansfield, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Although some experts have recently questioned the identity of the artist who painted the portrait, it has long been attributed to the German-born painter Johann Zofanny, who was one of the most important artists working in England in the 1760s and 70s and whose portrait commissions included King George III and Queen Charlotte, as well as many members of the British aristocracy and gentry – including a conversation piece portrayal of the family of one-time Lord of Mann the 3rd Duke of Atholl (who was, like the Earl of Mansfield, another Perthshire member of the Scottish Clan Murray) and, significantly for the theme of this article, another multi-portrait study of the family of anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp.
Whether or not it is in fact by Zofanny, the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray is throughout this summer the centre-piece of an exhibition at Scone Palace – a location otherwise famous as the place where Scottish kings were crowned and as the original home of the Stone of Destiny taken by King Edward I to England in the Middle Ages and used in coronations held at Westminster Abbey up until its recent return to Scotland. The exhibition, which has been planned and researched by the current Earl and Countess of Mansfield, explores the historical background to the film Belle, the true stories of the members of the Mansfield family involved in Dido’s story and also Scotland’s heritage of involvement in the slave trade and the development of Britain’s colonies in the Americas.
Meanwhile, until July 2 another exhibition is being held at the real Dido Elizabeth Belle’s London home of Kenwood – the 1st Earl of Mansfield’s Georgian mansion on Hampstead Heath now owned by English Heritage – showing costumes worn by the stars of the film, notably Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Dido in her adult years, and Sarah Gadon, who plays her boon companion Lady Elizabeth.
Thanks to recent research by Christie’s auction house expert Sally Goodsir we now know that Kenwood’s neoclassical interiors designed by the great Scottish architect Robert Adam were originally decorated and painted for the Earl of Mansfield by his fellow countryman George Steuart – the man who designed the Castle Mona in Douglas as the Manx home of the 4th Duke of Atholl and who is buried in Old Kirk Braddan churchyard. Steuart also notes in his correspondence to the Atholls in the late 1760s that, in the years after Dido first went to live at Kenwood, he ‘completed my Lord Mansfield’s front’, meaning painting the white stucco facade of the mansion.
Sadly, at the time Belle was being filmed Kenwood was undergoing extensive renovation, so the film-makers’ production designer Simon Bowles (also responsible for transforming Castletown into 18th-century Bristol) had to use the National Trust-owned West Wycombe Park near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire for exterior scenes representing the Mansfield home, and the Robert Adam-designed rooms of the London mansions Syon House and Osterley Park for interior scenes. Other locations used for the filming were various Georgian squares in central London and the 17th-century Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, the building in which Oxford University degree ceremonies and debates are generally held.
Produced by Isle of Man Film along with DJ Films and Pinewood Pictures and with distribution rights in the USA and UK purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures last year, Belle is claimed to be the first major British movie to be shot on true-4K using Sony’s F65 CineAlta digital camera. As well as Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sarah Gadon, its other stars include Tom Wilkinson as William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, Emily Watson as the Countess of Mansfield, Matthew Goode as Dido’s father Captain Sir John Lindsay, Penelope Wilton as Lady Mary Murray, Sam Reid as Dido’s eventual husband John Davinier and Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson, Alex Jennings, James Norton, James Northcote and Bethan Mary-James in other significant roles. The Manx extras were recruited by Bev Lawley of Port Erin.
The film attracted much positive comment when previewed at the Toronto Film Festival in Canada in September last year and, in a year which saw Oscar success for American production 12 Years A Slave, its release in the USA last month has inevitably seem parallels being drawn, as well as attracting interest for combining the slavery theme with ‘the Jane Austen code of manners’.
As with a number of plays and a short film which were produced using Dido Elizabeth Belle as a central character to highlight the rise of the slave trade abolition movement during the bicentenary commemorations in 2007, the Belle film-makers’ main motiviation has been to retell in dramatic form the story of how some of the Earl of Mansfield’s judgements raised public awareness of, and changed attitudes towards, the slave trade at a time when British mariners far outstripped those of other nations as regards numbers involved in transporting enslaved Africans.
Belle will be screened at the Broadway Cinema in Douglas from Friday. A review will appear in Thursday’s Manx Independent.