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Portrait of an African (Exeter Museums)
By John Madin, Curator Art, Exeter Museum Services
New light has been shed on the iconic painting, Portrait of an African, which hangs at a Devon museum.
The mystery identity of the man in the iconic painting, Portrait of an African, has been solved - almost 250 years after it was painted.
It was previously thought the painting - which is at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter - was of Nigerian abolitionist and writer, Olaudah Equiano, who lived around 1745-1797.
However, recent research has found that the sitter was almost certainly Ignatius Sancho (1729-80), who was born on a slave ship and brought to England.
The painting, attributed to Allan Ramsay, is dated in the late 1750s, when Sancho would have been about 30-years-old.
He was employed by the wealthy Montagu family in London. In 1751, he was bequeathed a lump sum and annuity by the Duchess of Montagu. However, he squandered his money and was back working for the family by the late 1750s.
At this time - the middle of the 18th century - Britain was the most successful slave trading nation in Europe. Thousands were transported to these shores to work as cheap domestic labour for wealthy families.
Equiano, on the front of his autobiography
These slaves were renamed and given few privileges, yet were also highly fashionable and some would appear in group portraits.
Portrait of an African is unusual in that it's of an individual - indicating the sitter was granted a status denied to virtually all other Africans in mid-18th century Britain.
Again, this fits in with Sancho's story. Sancho was intelligent, witty and cultured and during the 1750s would have encountered artists and writers.
The portrait may have been done to coincide with his marriage in 1758, when Ramsay was recognised as one of the two greatest living portrait painters in Britain.
New research has named Ramsay as the most likely painter, as it has all his hallmarks - refined observation, a heightened sense of naturalism and an extreme delicacy of touch. Sancho later sat for Thomas Gainsborough in Bath (1768).
In recent decades the painting has acquired iconic status and has been widely reproduced. But there was still that nagging question: who is the man in the picture?
In 1961, a curator at the British Museum named the sitter as Equiano, who visited Devon while campaigning for an end to the slave trade. However, that theory was discredited because the dating was wrong and the facial likeness was unconvincing.
So what became of Sancho? Well, he suffered from health problems in middle age and was forced to retire from service. He ran a grocery shop in Westminster and died in 1780.
When published posthumously in 1782, Sancho's letters provided slave trade abolitionists with proof that Africans were capable of refinement and sensibility. Today his letters are again famous as eyewitness accounts of daily life in eighteenth century London and of historic events such as the Gordon Riots.
A full account of the attribution to Ramsay and identification of Sancho is contained in the article: The Lost African published in Apollo, August 2006.
Portrait of an African (probably Ignatius Sancho)
Portrait of Equiano, courtesy of the National Maritime Museum.
last updated: 08/07/2008 at 16:11