Black History Month: ‘Portrait of an African’.
Portrait of an African: a well loved painting
This portrait (currently titled Portrait of an African), from RAMM’s Fine Art collection, has a high profile. You can see it on book covers, posters and websites, and it is reproduced regularly in Black History Month. You may see it even more often in the coming year as it will feature in a short film to be produced for RAMM’s exhibition In Plain Sight: Transatlantic slavery & Devon (which has been postponed to Spring 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic).
Despite its familiarity we are not really sure who this picture shows. When it arrived at RAMM in 1943 the only names recorded were those of the (white) donor and the (white) proposed artist (Joshua Reynolds, 1723 – 1792). In the 1960s it was suggested that the sitter was Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 1797), an African who had been enslaved as a child and taken from Africa to the plantations of Barbados and Virginia around 1756. Although most enslaved Africans were made to work on the plantations, Equiano was able to work on ships instead and he travelled widely before buying his freedom in 1766. He eventually settled in London and became active in the antislavery movement and was friends with Methodists and abolitionists. He wrote a long record of his life in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, which was first published in 1789.
However in 2006 new research suggested that the person shown in the painting was not Equiano but Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729 -1780) and the artist was likely to be Allan Ramsay (1713 – 1784). Sancho had been born on a slave ship which was heading for the plantations of South America but he was brought to England when less than two years old. He was presented to a group of sisters as a gift, then served the wealthy Montagu family and eventually he became an independent shopkeeper in London. This meant that Sancho was entitled to vote in Parliamentary elections – the first person of African origin known to have done so. As well as this he was a composer, an actor and writer, and he made a significant impact within the abolition movement. His letters were published as Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho in 1782.
New insights and more to discover
Recently questions have been raised about the identification of this portrait and this has prompted us to look into the histories of other people of African origin who were present in Britain (and Europe) around the time this painting was made. Sancho and Equiano, like another former enslaved African, Ottobagh Cuguano (1757 – after 1791), were well known for their contributions to the abolition movement but there were many black people active in other areas of society at the time. Some were famous for their musical performances like George Bridgetower, (1778 – 1860) or Joseph Emidy (1775 – 1835) while Julius Soubise (1754 – 1798) was renowned for his flamboyant dress and his fencing and riding skills. Many more were not such celebrities, but were carrying on their everyday lives, like Sancho’s wife and fellow trader, Anne Osborne (1733 – 1817) while many others, their names lost or unrecorded, were held as servants. It is possible that RAMM’s portrait shows us one of these individuals.
So while we are no nearer a new identification for the sitter in this portrait, we are gaining a fuller idea of the black people who contributed to British history in the eighteenth century and we will continue to work to bring their lives into clearer focus.
Links to further information
There have been some stimulating and exciting contributions to the study of black portraiture lately. Here are just a few favourites:
- Peter Braithwaite’s ‘Rediscovering Black Portraiture’ project: http://peterbrathwaitebaritone.com/rediscoveringblackportraiture
- Art UK’s Art Detective discussion thread about the identity of Portrait of an African: https://www.artuk.org/artdetective/discussions/discussions/who-is-the-sitter-in-portrait-of-an-african-attributed-to-allan-ramsay
- Paterson Joseph’s challenge to art historians: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-outrageous-neglect-of-african-figures-in-art-history
- Art UK’s blog on the black presence in European oil paintings: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/repositioning-the-voices-of-enslaved-people-through-art
- David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History on BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/b082x0h6/black-and-british-a-forgotten-history
- Akinola Davis’ short films Black to Life on BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07dt1d3