What can portraits tell us about black history?

The sitter in ‘Portrait of an African’ plays a key role in the exhibition ‘In Plain Sight’. He is a visible— if silent—witness from the age of Trans-Atlantic slavery. But beyond the obvious fact of his ancestry, visitors might wonder what this clean-cut figure in European dress had to do with the organised cruelty of that era. With his assured gaze, he looks like someone who was spared the brutality of the slave ships and the plantations.

Despite plenty of efforts to identify him, the man in the RAMM’s portrait is one of many people of African descent who have been erased from historical record. But the ‘In Plain Sight’ exhibition creates an opportunity to think about what his status and prospects might have been in Georgian Britain. Other portraits provide some clues as to what may have been his lived reality. But caution is also needed when using them as historical documents to glean an insight into black history.

Juan de Pareja

Portraiture’s goal is to enhance identity. It gives the sitter—usually a person of wealth and status— the chance to have an idealised image of themselves projected. Conversely enslavement denies identity. The person, and their body, are reduced to a tool or commodity. The idea of a portrait of an enslaved person therefore seems contradictory, or even impossible. But in 1650 in Rome, the Afro-Hispanic enslaved man Juan de Pareja sat for Diego Velasquez. Today this portrait hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Photograph of a oil portrait of Juan de Pareja.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Portrait of Juan de Pareja, 1650. Oil on canvas.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Fletcher and Rogers Funds, and Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876-1967), by exchange, supplemented by gifts from friends of the Museum, 1971. Public domain.

The sitter’s dignity and poise can be read as a kind of compliment by Velasquez to Pareja, who also trained him in his studio. But the portrait, and the relationship, are undermined by their bond of enslaver and slave. Fortunately for Pareja, eight months after the portrait was painted, he was legally granted his freedom. He went on to pursue an independent career as an artist.

William Ansah Sessarakoo

Another portrait marked by slavery is one by the Hugenot artist Gabriel Mathias of William Ansah Sessarakoo. It was painted in London in 1749, a few years before the RAMM portrait.

Photograph of an oil portrait of Portrait of William Ansah Sessarakoo
Gabriel Mathias, Portrait of William Ansah Sessarakoo, son of Eno Baisie Kurentsi (John Currantee) of Anomabu. 1749. Oil on canvas
66.7 × 55.6 cm. The Menil Collection, Houston.

The sitter was a member of the powerful Fantu family from West Africa (now Ghana). His father was an intermediary in the slave trade with England and France. In return for services he secured an education for his son in England. The ship intended to carry Sessarakoo to school sailed via Barbados. Here, in a dramatic change of fortune, he was captured and sold. His father raised the alarm and Sessarakoo was rescued and sent to London. But in a further cruel twist, the English involvement in his rescue was turned into propaganda for the Royal African Company, itself responsible for shipping hundreds of thousands of Africans into slavery.

Slavery existed in Georgian Britain, but in a context of legal ambiguity that neither explicitly endorsed nor condemned it. Newspaper advertisements are proof that the buying and selling of humans took place in this country. Families relocating back home from the colonies often brought with them their domestic slaves who had been legally born or sold into slavery abroad. Of the estimated 10,000-15,000 people of African descent living in Britain during the period of the slave trade, many worked as domestics.  The catch-all term ‘servant’ encompassed a wide range of practices, from service to servitude and slavery.

Charles Ignatius Sancho

Charles Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) is one of the black Britons who has been linked with the RAMM portrait but probably inaccurately. Born into slavery, Sancho went on to be a prominent member of London society. He is justly admired for his achievements as a composer, musician, writer and abolitionist, as well as for being the first black person to vote in a general election. Gainsborough’s portrait from 1768 shows him at the height of his powers.

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho, half-length, standing to left, his right hand inside breast of waistcoat; in an oval; frontispiece to 'Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho' (London: 1802); after Thomas Gainsborough (Waterhouse, 598). 1781-1802
Francesco Bartolozzi, Portrait of Ignatius Sancho; frontispiece to ‘Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho’ (London: 1802); after Thomas Gainsborough.
© The Trustees of the British Museum. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Less well known is that Sancho worked for over twenty years as a butler and valet to the  Montagu family. He held this position until 1773. Domestic service is therefore implicit in Gainsborough’s portrait even if not overtly referenced. The Duchess of Montagu took Sancho to Gainsborough’s studio in Bath and paid for the portrait. A gesture of kindness no doubt, but one that reflected well on her as an ‘enlightened’ patron, while still keeping him in a position of inferiority.

Critical attention has been drawn to the many black servants and slaves who appear alongside those they were bonded to in European portraits from the age of slavery. Often, they are presented not as individuals but as subordinates, exotic accessories, like still lifes. When black sitters are depicted alone, in their own right, the question of their humanity is presented directly. It is a one-on-one encounter as they meet the viewer’s gaze.

Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest

But that too can be problematic. For example, Marie-Victoire Lemoine’s ‘Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest,’ from 1785, depicts a sumptuously dressed page boy.

Marie-Victoire Lemoine, Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest
Marie-Victoire Lemoine, Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest, 1785, oil on canvas.
Purchased with funds from the Cummer Council, Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens , Jacksonville, Florida, AP.1994.3.1.

The artist has captured his diffidence well. As the young boy is put into the spotlight he seems to hide what he is really thinking and feeling. It is possible to see in this portrait a different kind of objectification from works where Europeans are the main subjects. The  enslaved or bonded sitter is granted a temporary identity and status, only for it later to be withdrawn as he goes back to his life of service. The finished portrait is a prestige object designed to flatter and amuse the those who paid for it. It is notable, that at this time wealthy people were equally keen to commission portraits of their pets.

Portrait of An African

What can we learn about the man in ‘Portrait of an African’ from this brief survey of other portraits? Firstly, nice clothes and a dignified bearing are not signals of exemption from enslavement. The first-hand experiences of slavery by Pareja, Sessarakoo and Sancho, set alongside their impressive appearances in their portraits, are evidence that both privilege and exploitation were possible within a single human life span. Compared with others of their heritage, these men were extremely fortunate to receive an education and to experience the favour of influential white members of society. But still there is a pattern of precarity in their life stories.

It is almost certainly the case that that the man in ‘Portrait of an African’ was not enslaved at the moment that he sat for his portrait. For the portrait to have been painted at all, he would have needed the recognition, if not the affirmation, of polite society (the case of Pareja is extremely rare). It is possible, like Sancho, that he was a domestic servant to a wealthy family. If so the portrait would likely have arisen out a complex mix of emotional bonds, and a belief in ‘enlightened’ sponsorship that enabled him to advance a certain way in British society but still kept doors closed. Alternatively, like Sessarakoo, the sitter may have been a visitor, perhaps spending a period of time in this country for educational reasons.

Undeniably, like so many eighteenth-century lives, black and white, his life would have been affected by slavery. Fortunes could change, and he may have been only a step away from capture and deportation.

Melissa Percival

You may also like:

Leave a comment

Subject to approval, your name and blog comment will be made public. Any comment replies will also be public. Your email address will never be published. If you wish to contact us privately, please use the Contact form.

Leave a comment