By David Dabydeen
Last updated 2011-02-17
That Thomas Gainsborough - one of Britain's most fashionable artists and highly sought after by aristocratic sitters - should have painted this subject is testimony to Ignatius Sancho's elevated status in British society.
Sancho was born around 1729 on board a slave ship en route to the West Indies. Orphaned in infancy, he was brought to England by his master at the age of two or three and given to three maiden sisters living in Greenwich. The sisters named him Sancho, thinking he resembled Don Quixote's squire. They kept him in ignorance, not teaching him to read or write.
He was rescued by the duke of Montagu, who lived nearby in Blackheath. The duke, encountering the boy by accident, took a liking to his frankness of manner. Sancho eventually ended up working as a butler in the Montagu household, where the patronage and encouragement of the duke and duchess inspired his creativity.
Sancho wrote poetry, stage plays, and a theory of music, and composed songs and minuets for violin, mandolin, flute and harpsichord. An annuity left to him by the duchess enabled him to set up a grocery shop in Charles Street, Westminster. The shop became a meeting place for artists, musicians, and writers. Sancho's friends included David Garrick, the theatre owner and Shakespearean actor; Lawrence Sterne, the novelist; and Joseph Nollekens, the sculptor.
Gainsborough depicts Sancho as a genial, relaxed and self-assured figure. His brick-red waistcoat and the painting's rich brown background exude a warmth which is indicative of the sitter's character. He is an individual, not a type. Although in service to the Montagu household, Sancho is not painted in livery, but in a fashionable waistcoat with gold brocade edging and necktie. His 'hand-in-waistcoat' pose, common in 18th-century portraits of English gentlemen, reveals him to be a man of social standing.
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