Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit (painting)

Fine Art


In June 2023 RAMM made the decision to change the title of this work to ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’. It was formerly titled ‘Portrait of an African’. Senior Collections Officer Julien Parsons explains why in this blog post:

One of RAMM’s best known paintings, there has been lively debate over the identity of both sitter and artist. Possible sitters have included Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho. Expand the sections below for more information.


1757 / PM Turner

This object is not on display.

RAMM will continue to add content to this record as we interrogate our archives. Please expand the sections below for more information on this painting including its history, conservation and creative responses to the work.

  • Pre 1931, painting in the possession of Dr William Paulson of Devon. Name obtained from Christie’s Archives.
  • Christies auction catalogue lists the painting as Lot 76 by Reynolds. Bought by Gooden and Fox, London.
  • Percy Moore Turner purchases painting from from Gooden and Fox for £13.13s. This was apparently on the same day as the Christie’s sale. It is possible Gooden and Fox were acting as agent for Turner who was a Director there in 1936 (Colman Archives, Norwich).
  • Painting recorded in Turner’s stockbook (book held by Turner family), number 1757
  • Turner donated the painting to RAMM 1 May 1943, presumably due to Reynold’s association to Devon. Turner’s friendship with Robert Worthington connected him to RAMM.

Olaudah Equiano

In 1961 William Fagg, a curator at the British Museum, suggested that the sitter was Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 1797). Equiano was an African who had been enslaved as a child and taken from Africa to the plantations of Barbados and Virginia around 1756.

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.

This identification was based on a resemblance to the portrait engraving that forms the frontispiece of Equiano’s

Image: ‘Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African’. Daniel Orme; Gustavas Vassa; after W. Denton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Although most enslaved Africans were made to work on the plantations, Equiano was able to work on ships instead. He travelled widely before buying his freedom in 1766. Equiano 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.

Most researchers agree that the painting cannot be the source for the frontispiece engraving (by Daniel Orme after W. Denton), as both composition and dress are quite different. In the frontispiece, Equiano is shown in middle age and dressed in a style contemporary with the first edition of his book.

Could the painting depict Equiano as a younger man? Even if we allow for ageing and the difference between a painting and a reproductive engraving, the facial likeness was deemed unconvincing. Especially noteworthy is that Equiano’s jaw-line is much narrower than that of the individual in the painting.

Ignatius Sancho

In 2006 new research suggested that the person shown in the painting was Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729 -1780). Former RAMM curator wrote an article in the art magazine Apollo explaining his reasoning.

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 Stipple

Image: 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.

Sancho had been born on a slave ship which was heading for the plantations of South America. He was brought to England when less than two years old. Sancho 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 . He was 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.

Unknown rather than unknowable

Recently futher questions have been raised about the identification of this portrait. 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.

In October 2019 the actor Paterson Joseph reinvigorated debate on the painting. Writing on the Art UK website, he believes its association with Sancho is inaccurate. A lively thread on the Art Detective website discusses potential sitters at length but dismisses both Sancho and Equiano.

In a blog article, Senior Collections Officer Julien Parsons writes that he believes the identities of the sitter and artist to be currently ‘unknown but not unknowable’ and research work continues.

Sir Joshua Reynolds

When the work was sold at auction in 1931, Christies catalogue lists the painting as being by Reynolds.

However, this attribution was dismissed by Ellis Waterhouse in 1969. In a letter to Patrick Boylan, 17
February 1969 he tentatively suggested Mason Chamberlin, an attribution which is not supported by
date or close examination of handling.

Allan Ramsay

In the article for Apollo John Madin suggests Allan Ramsay as the artist’s identity:

‘Allowing for an adaptation of technique for a sitter with dark skin, I would argue that all the visual evidence indicates that the Exeter portrait is, like Lady Janet Erskine, a painting by Ramsay of the late 1750s. A date of c. 1758-59 is also supported by the evidence of the sitter’s dress and hair style. For example, the 3rd Earl of Bute, as painted by Ramsay in 1758, wears a matching pattern of wig (Fig. 6). If the painting is by Ramsay, its style allows us to date it more precisely. His so-called ‘second style’ is readily distinguishable from his first and since he is known not to have returned to London from Italy before August 1757, the Exeter portrait cannot have been painted before the autumn of that year.’

The frame the painting is currently shown in is not original to the work. It is a replica frame in Carlo Maratta style, restored in 2008. It is backed with hardboard and glazed with low reflect glass. We do not know if an original frame used by the artist ever existed.

Close up colour photograph of the frame used for Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit. It is gold gilded and in the Maratta style.

Colour photograph of the reverse side of a painting showing canvas, stretcher and museum labels.
Reverse of canvas prior to 2007 conservation
Colour photograph of the reverse side of a painting showing the canvas has been relined during conservation work
Reverse of canvas after relining in 2007

Transcriptions of the labels are as follows:

Top: and bottom: Labels attached by RAMM stating tile, artist, donor etc

Middle: ‘1757’. This is Percy Moore Turner’s stock number

No inscriptions were found on the reverse of the original canvas during conservation work in 2007.

There is no conservation treatment history prior to 2007. In 2007 the following conservation work was undertaken:


Before treatment: the varnish had yellowed and there were some drip marks near the lower edge. There was a former cleaning test on the shoulder where a brownish paint glaze appeared abraded. A glaze over the red jacket was uneven and worn. There was a matt area on the sitter’s nose where a liquid had been spilt on the surface, dissolving the varnish.

Photograph of the painting Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit taken under UV light

The UV image shows the varnish as an opaque layer which has been applied unevenly and some horizontal brush marks are visible.

Treatment: the discoloured varnish was removed with Propan-2-one and white spirit in equal measures. Three applications of varnish (Laropal K80 Resin / Stoddard Solvent). The first layer was applied by brush, the two further coats were sprayed.

Colour photograph showing dirty cotton wool swabs that were used to remove old varnish from a painting.
Swabs used during varnish removal

Previous retouching and raised paint

Before treatment: The paint layer is worn on the face along the canvas weave and in the background where the tips of the paint are worn.

Photograph of the painting Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit taken under UV light

The UV image also reveals darkened retouching around the edges, in the top right corner, some small retouching to the face and throughout the background.

Treatment: The darkened retouchings were removed with undiluted Propan-2-one. The paint losses were sealed with clear, bleached dewaxed shellac and filled with gesso. After reduction, the gesso fillings were sealed again with shellac and retouched with watercolours. Paint deficiencies were retouched with pigments mixed with MS2A resin / Stoddard Solvent.

Lining canvas and stretcher

Before treatment: The old lining was very stiff and hard with jagged edges at the top left side. It was lined with an aqueous adhesive and during this process, the original tacking edges have been removed. The current stretcher which has a central cross bat is most likely a replacement. the former support, either keyed stretcher or strainer, has only left lines around the edges. the reasons for the previous lining are probably due to physical damage and a wide craquelure pattern in the paint layer determined primarily by the support and ground. the paint craquelure and stretcher marks have become raised again, the tension in the lining canvas and adhesive being unable to hold them flat. there is a old distortion in the lower right corner.

Pohotograph of the back of the canvas of Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit
No inscriptions were found on the reverse of the original canvas
Colour photograph showing a tear to the canvas of 'Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit'
A tear approximately 3.5 inches in length

Treatment: Painting faced for protection with Isinglass and honey. It was removed from the stretcher and the old lining canvas and glue removed from the reverse of the original canvas. It was then softly suspension paste lined onto fine weave linen. after allowing the paint to dry throughout, the facing was removed. the back of the lining canvas was sealed with Paraloid B67 with white spirit. The stretcher was refurbished and the painting re-stretched. the stretcher keys were secured with thread.

Conservators took two samples for examination. Both were mounted as cross-sections to show the layers and viewed in halogen and UV fluorescent light. Paint from the ground and from the red, black and brown layers was dispersed on glass slides. The pigments were identified using a polarising light microscope at magnification x1000.

Photograph of the outline of a portrait drawn in black ink on acetate showing where paint samples were taken from

Sample 1 – from the right side of the red coat

Aim: To see if the brown glaze layer seen over the red is original or a later addition.

  • The cross-section shows an original red layer of vermillion mixed with a little carbon black.
  • On top of the vermillion are two coats of un-pigmented varnish. These layers are now a brownish colour. Presumably they were once clear. No instrumental organic analysis was carried out but their bright white fluorescence in UV light suggests that the varnish was a resin one.
  • On top of the varnish is a very thin red/brown glaze layer containing particles of vermillion, black and iron oxide brown. As this is over two coats of varnish, it cannot be original.
Colour photograph of a section of paint showing layers of paint and varnish
This cross-section shows the original thick layer of red based on vermillion, followed by two lots of clear varnish, then a very thin brownish layer based mostly on vermillion and red/brown oxide. Microscope magnification x500.

Sample 2 – from the bottom edge

Aim: To give full sequence of layers.

  • The ground consisted of a thick layer of buff-coloured oil paint mixed from lead white, yellow iron oxide and a little carbon black.
  • Between the ground and the paint layers of the portrait is a layer of why might be oil. This might have been added prior to painting, or, if the ground mixture was very richly bound, it may have risen to the surface as a result of pigment settling. No instrumental analysis was carried out – the identity of oil is inferred from its dark appearance under UV.
  • On top of the ground there is a layer of dark red which is presumably from the man’s coat. The coat in sample 1 is painted in almost pure vermillion, but here is is mixed with equal amounts of red lake..
  • On top of the red is a layer of pure carbon black, presumably from the oval surround. The pigment has very fine particles in dispersion, and its origin could be lamp black.
  • The paint fragment included a crack in the paint layers. In cross section we can see that the black has filled the crack. this may mean that there was an interval between completing the portrait and adding the oval.
  • On top of the black is an uneven brownish-black layer of carbon black mixed with a little vermillion and iron oxide. There is no varnish between this brownish-black layer and the underlying pure black one, so the two could be contemporary.
  • The final layers consist of the remains of discoloured varnishes,
Magnified cross section through paint layers
Bottom edge, fragment with crack. Magnification x 200
Magnified cross section through paint layers
Detail of crack filled with pure black and then brown/black. Magnification x500
Magnified cross section through paint layers
Area without cracks. No varnish between the red, the black and the brownish black. Oil layer indicated. Magnification x500

Future Exhibitions

The painting is due to go on loan to other UK venues in 2023 and 2024. This section will be updated when dates exhibition titles are confirmed.

Past Exhibitions

  • In Plain Sight – Transatlantic slavery and Devon‘. RAMM, 2022
  • Bedwyr Williams ‘ Phizogs’. Reproduction included in the display. RAMM, 2018
  • Museum of Art of São Paulo, Brazil, 2018
  • Exeter’s Fine Art Collection #8. RAMM 2016
  • Exeter’s Fine Art Collection #6. RAMM 2015
  • Exeter’s Fine Art Collection #5. RAMM 2014
  • Exeter’s Fine Art Collection #4. RAMM 2013
  • Exeter’s Fine Art Collection #1. RAMM 2012
  • Eye to Eye: Discovering people in portraits. RAMM 2006


In 2022 RAMM invited a selection of people to offer their views and thoughts, and commissioned a film to illustrate the many responses prompted by the enigmatic painting. 

Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit. Artist unknown, oil on canvas, 1740-1780. Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, EXEMS:14/1943

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If you wish to licence this picture it is available through Bridgeman Images.

Prints are available through Art UK.

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