Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit

The self-assured figure depicted in RAMM’s most celebrated portrait sits at the centre of a tangled web of conflicting opinions. Formerly known as ‘Portrait of an African’, we have taken the decision to give the painting a new title, the more descriptive ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’. Here, I want to explain the reasoning behind this change.

Provenance of the portrait

Many of you will be familiar with the picture and its historical importance, recently explored in a blog by Melissa Percival. However, frustratingly, we know very little of the picture’s provenance. Christie’s sold the work in 1931. Soon after it passed into the hands of connoisseur and art dealer Percy Moore Turner. Turner donated the work to RAMM in 1943 on the basis of a connection to Devon. He thought it was by the great Plympton-born artist Sir Joshua Reynolds. The attribution to Reynolds was refuted in 1969.

The vacuum left by a lack of information on the painting’s past, allowed for a good deal of speculation by historians. In the 1960s, the identity of the sitter was proposed as the author and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797). We know his likeness through a contemporary engraving.

Photograph of an uncoloured engraving titled ‘Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African’. It shows a portrait of a man facing to the left in oval aperture.
‘Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African’. Daniel Orme; Gustavas Vassa; after W. Denton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This remained the working hypothesis until 2006 when, writing in the art magazine Apollo, my former colleague John Madin proposed another abolitionist and author, Charles Ignatius Sancho (c.1729-1780), as the sitter, and Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay as the artist.

Further Debate

As the identity of artist and subject shifted through the decades, so the title of the work changed to embrace the ambiguity. By 2019, it was known as ‘Portrait of an African (probably Ignatius Sancho)’. Yet its former attribution proved hard to shake off. (Based on the less than scientific method of a Google search, the painting remains widely reproduced as Equiano, even if authors and publishers subsequently acknowledge it’s probably not actually an image of him!)

In October 2019 the actor Paterson Joseph reinvigorated debate on the painting. Writing on the Art UK website, he expressed dismay at the picture’s full title. Also its association with Sancho, which he felt was inaccurate. Joseph cited the attribution as an example of the whitewashing of African-Britons from the record of British art history, suggesting scholars lazily returned to the same few notable black figures in 18th-century Britain when there were many others who might be the individual in RAMM’s portrait.

To be fair to the art historians, they tried. Over the course of 2019, a lively thread on the Art Detective website rehearsed the same art historical arguments. But it came to the same conclusion. Although dismissing both Sancho and Equiano, it left us none the wiser on the name of the enigmatic subject nor the artist.

On display

As part of RAMM’s ‘In Plain Sight: Transatlantic slavery and Devon’ exhibition in 2022, we commissioned a video exploring the issue of identity in the portrait, posing to a selection of interviewees the question: ‘What is the most appropriate title for the work?’ Again, there was no clear consensus. And this year, as the portrait is prepared for its starring role in exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and the Royal Academy the lenders have asked us to clarify the portrait’s ‘official’ title.

Portrait of an African, Film by Michael Jenkins, 8th Sense Media. Running time:  15 minutes 15 seconds. Created in response to the painting ‘Portrait of an African’. A full transcript is available.

Unknown rather than unknowable

Bearing in mind growing historical evidence for a thriving community of African-Britons in Georgian England, it seems inappropriate to continue to label ‘our man’ as African rather than British, or indeed some other nationality. Faced with the prospect of an accurate but soulless title such as ‘unknown individual of African descent’ we have opted for something more expressive based on his striking attire. Hence ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’.

Please don’t take this as an acknowledgement of failure. I still believe the identity of the sitter and artist are unknown rather than unknowable, and work continues. On 4 May, a group of experts assembled by London’s Courtauld Institute of Art and the Royal Academy came to Exeter to examine the portrait in store. While art history on its own may struggle to find an answer to the riddle, it may be a combination of history and science may yet prove conclusive.

colour photograph: a group of people cluster around a painting laid flat on a table. A bright light is shone of the surface.
On 4 May, a group of experts assembled by London’s Courtauld Institute of Art and the Royal Academy came to Exeter to examine the portrait in store.

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