Art History in “Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice” by Paula Byrne

To buy the book, click on the cover

All the coverage on Belle via MedievalPOC

Austenprose has some of the art featured in the book

So far, of all the history books/biographies I have reviewed for this site, this could almost qualify as an art history book. The inclusion of reproductions, plus Byrne’s analysis that puts them in their original context, and lastly, the numerous descriptions of many famous buildings has led me to that conclusion.  This book could even act as a handy guide for a themed tour. To elaborate, when I studied abroad in Rome, one of the classes in the program I was in offered a tour that invited people to visit the locations found in Dan Brown’s book, Angels and Demons.  

Furthermore, I found myself inundated with the constant mention of artists who encountered the people Byrne profiles.  Another reason I could put this in the art history genre?  The book opens with a painting, one that carries a mystery that’s on par, or just as potent as the Girl with the Pearl Earring.  

Screencap from The Guardian.    By the way, I think Belle invented the photo bomb.  Also, I know The Guardian article compared this work to the Mona Lisa, but that’s too cliché for me.

In that introduction, the author breaks down the painting, right down to the iconography that binds the girls to the stereotypes she analyses. Probably the reason why Byrne relies on so much art comes from the fact that she have very scant information on Dido Elizabeth Belle’s life.  The writer in Austenprose noticed this too.  However, as a substitute, art provides a solid crutch for Byrne’s narrative.  She does this for other historical events, such as a skirmish in Cuba that Belle’s father, Captain Lindsay found himself in. There, she writes of Richard Paton’s painting that freezes the moment for the world to see.  She also mentions Captain Lindsay’s portrait as rendered by Allan Ramsay in a more tranquil setting.

In fact, the many artists Byrne writes about practically act as supporting characters to Belle and her family’s story.  Artists such as the famed portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Byrne would reinforce Reynolds’s high status and influence with the mention of his portraits of Lord and Lady Mansfield, the relatives who took in Belle.  Mansfield himself had knowledge of Antiquity era art. In a court case judged by Belle’s uncle that deliberated over Chevalier D’Eon’s sex, the Venus de’ Medici garners a reference.

Josiah Wedgwood, the legendary ceramic king would also pop in and out of the book with mentions of his dishes that no doubt held an ingredient held dear by the British.  The ingredient known as sugar.  Byrne does not delve into it, but Wedgwood seemed to have held two positions on the subject of sugar. Byrne’s first mention of the ceramic king casts him as someone who benefited from the sweet, but Wedgwood Industries obviously had a change of heart over the idea taking sugar from places that committed human rights violations, for they would make art that spoke out against slavery.  However, Wedgwood crockery still left a mark in people’s minds when it came to representation, what with Byrne citing a play that compared Black women’s bodies to designs made by the ceramicist. 

Byrne gives an in-depth history of sugar, the sweet fuel that would drive the slave trade, and mentioned that even as far back as the Tudor period, sugar acted as a prize ingredient and would appear in art. To further drive home the insatiable desire the British had for sugar, cartoons depicting the horrors of slavery and still lifes representing the subject peppered throughout the book. 

Regarding architecture, the most prominent building of the book had the name Kenwood, for it acted as Belle’s home during her years as a girl. Furthermore, the author described Kenwood’s diverse material goods such as ceramics and Asian themed sections of the place that Belle must have walked around in. Of course, when the story goes to London, Byrne mentions St Paul’s Cathedral.  Lastly, even at the end of Belle’s life, she was surrounded by artists.  For example, the author named Charles Wilkin and George Shakespeare as people who lived near her residence.

All in all, I recommend it. Readable and well paced, it made for a quick and very enlightening book.

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