Fake or Fortune? A Double Whodunnit
Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould investigate two rare portraits of black British subjects from the 18th and 19th centuries. Painted with extraordinary skill and sophistication, both pictures are highly unusual in their positive depiction of black sitters at a time when Britain was still heavily engaged in slavery. But this is also an intriguing double whodunnit. Who are the artists who broke with the conventions of the time to paint these exceptional works?
The first case is a double portrait featuring Dido Belle, a former slave who became a member of the aristocratic Mansfield family. The painting is on display at Scone Palace in Scotland and was commissioned by the first Lord Mansfield, Dido Belle’s guardian, sometime in the late 1770s or early 1780s at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In recent years, Belle’s incredible story has inspired books and a feature film about her life. Now the current Lady Mansfield is determined to discover the name of the artist who painted her.
The second painting is even more unusual – two beautifully dressed black girls holding a book in what appears to be a tropical landscape. Early clues suggest this could be a political painting somehow connected to the campaign to abolish slavery in Britain’s colonies. Could the sitters themselves be slaves, but if so why are they wearing such fine clothes?
The quest to solve both mysteries throws up some prime suspects from a golden era of British portraiture. But is new forensic and documentary evidence enough to convince a sceptical art world?
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