Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 18th C 97 Who is the sitter in 'Portrait of an African' attributed to Allan Ramsay?

Topic: Subject or sitter

From the 1960s onwards, this sitter was thought to be the abolitionist and writer Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797). Since 2006, he has been identified as the writer, composer and actor Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780), although there has remained doubt about whether Sancho is the subject, as reflected in the former title on Art UK, ‘Portrait of an African (possibly Ignatius Sancho)’.

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum has no fixed position on the 'correct' title of the work, but is open to new research and attributions if there is substantial evidence.

Lydia Figes, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Hat Jodelka,

I have no evidence but there are at least two other portraits of Ignatius Sancho (and an engraving) and this man looks totally different.

Martin Hopkinson,

Is everybody convinced that this is by Ramsay , or that is by a British artist?

This painting is a well-known problem: John Madin's 'Apollo' article of 2006 made a reasonable case for eliminating Equiano on date and physical-feature grounds and a fair circumstantial one for favouring Sancho, with a Ramsay attribution. But it was still just a view based in part on the absence of any other credibly identifiable alternative sitters. Until someone produces such alternatives this is a discussion with nowhere useful to go on the sitter front. Demonstrating firmly that the artist is 'not Ramsay' or 'not British' would be interesting in itself but rule Sancho even further out of the circumstantial case that Madin outlines, without any likelihood (beyond sheer chance) of providing an alternative named subject.

Until that situation changes, Exeter's current 'top-line' description is sensible: anyone with a further interest quickly encounters the Equiano and Sancho hypotheses. The painting has been frequently used as cover image for editions of both men's work (and others on black history in their period) and will no doubt do so in future. As a former publications editor I would now hestitate, based on Madin's arguments, to use it in connection with Equiano: while it may not be Sancho, that kite seems to fly better, at least for suitably qualified use in such circumstances.

Martin Hopkinson,

I don't think that this portrait he is mentioned in the recent biography of Percy Moore Turner(1905-52), the donor , a leading art dealer of the Independent Gallery, whose papers are in the Courtauld Institute
Sarah A M Turner , Percy Moore Turner, Connoisseur, Impresario, and Art Dealer, University of Chicago Press
Business papers survive . His interests were in Paris as well as in London

Michael Liversidge,

Might it be useful to have an opinion from a dress historian? If the suit can be identified as French or English it could at least point towards where the portrait was painted.

Martin Hopkinson,

The costume of course may have been painted by a specialist as was often the case in British 18th century portraits . The Allan Ramsay catalogue raisonne by the late Alastair Smart should be checked, but it is hard to make a strong argument for Ramsay as the painter of the head from the portraits visible on artuk.org

Martin Hopkinson,

The flatness of the costume is shared by some 18th century American paintings. Could this be by John Singleton Copley? Compare some of his oval portraits, At present I do not have access to Prown's catalogue raisonne which will provide images of many more oval portraits for comparison than can be found on artuk.org

Neil Jeffares,

If it is in the original frame, that might provide support for the suggestion that it is French. Is there an image?

Jo Langston,

I recently showed this portrait to a dress historian who dated it c. 1755-1765.

Equiano has previously been ruled out on the basis of age. If it was painted c. 1765 Equiano would have been 20. Therefore, I don’t think Equiano should be ruled out on the basis of age. I’m not familiar enough with his biography to know where he was at this age. His iconography is limited, which is problematic.

As for Sancho’s iconography, I’m aware of only one portrait ‘type’: the Gainsborough, the engraving after Gainsborough and a Portrait miniature I sold last year at Christie’s (where I work) which is based on the Gainsborough.

Hat Jodelka - you mention another one. Are you referring to the miniature, or something else? Would be interested to know. I am researching Sancho for a biography I’m writing. The iconography of Sancho is part of this research.

Has anyone in this group checked the Percy Moore Turner papers at the Courtauld? I was planning to do this in the next few weeks. It would be interesting to see how it was described when in his possession and look for clues to earlier provenance.

I’m afraid I can’t help with the attribution of the artist.

It would also be helpful to know whether the canvas is on a true oval stretcher or whether the portrait is in the form of a painted oval on a rectangular stretcher (with the spandrels masked by the frame). If the latter is the case then the oval could just about be compatible with a standard British 24 x 20 inch canvas.

Equiano was neither a free man nor in any position to have a portrait like this done before 1766 at earliest, when he bought his freedom in the West Indies and returned to London, though soon again away at sea until back in London working as a servant, 1777-84, which again does not seem to fit this image or the received assessment that to be by Ramsay it would have to be plus/minus 1760 (though Ramsay died in 1784). He then went back to sea and to Philadelphia and started to become known as a black champion, abolitionist etc thereafter: his 'Interesting Narrative' was published in 1789 and the print image of him in that is contemporary (i.e. when he was about 44).

An argument against Sancho (b c. 1729-1780) is that while encouraged by the 2nd Duke of Montagu in Greenwich (where he was in other service) in the 1740s he was not employed by the Montagus until after 1749, up to the 2nd Duchess's death in 1751, and then again by the 3rd Duke 1766-74, and by the latter period he was getting obese -which is what then rendered him disabled to continue. When that started is a moot point but the young man in the picture does not look as if he has that problem.

Jo Langston,

Thanks for providing the bio details Pieter. It seems plausible therefore that Equiano may have sat for his portrait in 1766 if at that date he was a free man and in London.

I have tried, without success, to identify the prototype of the engraving of Equiano that was published in his Narrative (now in the NPG) thinking that a comparison between that and the painting in Exeter would be more helpful than comparing the Exeter portrait with the engraving. But, I have had no luck finding it so far.

The Duchess of Montagu left Sancho a generous lump sum and annuity when she died in 1751, so he would have had the financial means to commission a portrait from a good artist during the decade in question (1755-65), though by the end of that decade he had spent most of it, hence his return to service with the Montagu family.

It seems that both Equiano and Sancho may be contenders based purely on circumstantial evidence (and leaving out the iconography which is problematic), but the pool of possible candidates extends beyond them. London’s population of people of African origin in the 18th century has been reported to be 10,000 - 20,000. A lot more research into this area of history has been carried out since John Madin published his article in 2006.

Martin Hopkinson,

We need guidance as to the date of the costume from French and American dress historians too

Louis Musgrove,

My guess would be the sitters costume is French of about 1780.Any expert out there to confirm this?
Also -just to confirm- this painting is of the highest quality- yes???

Yes, it is high quality, not least if you consider that the flip side of there being few oil portraits of black subjects was that the artists who painted them did not do so with the 'production-line' practice that their usual white clientele provided. It's unlikely to have been cheap by standards of the time which also implies that (a) if commissioned by the sitter, he had 'discretionary income' and a good reason to do it, or (b) as Madin suggested, it is a wealthy patron's' commission of a favoured 'protege' or -perhaps - (c) a demonstration of skill by the artist to show 'what he could do' with the young man just a handsomely suitable model albeit also probably someone's 'superior retainer'. The last two are, in effect, really both sides of the same coin.

Jacinto Regalado,

It could conceivably be one of the portraits Copley sent from Boston to England before he settled in London in 1774, the first of which was exhibited in 1766. What provenance information is available beyond the identity of the donor to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum?

I would like to thank Lesley Miller, Senior Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, for her comments on the sitter's clothing:

'The sitter seems to be wearing a suit that I would date to about 1780, because of the height of the collar and the size of the buttons. This was a pan-European style, the simplicity in keeping with the taste for Anglomania in the 1780s. In our Europe 1600–1815 Galleries we have a brown wool suit in a similar style with cut steel buttons. It is difficult to tell from the image what the actual colour of the suit is – brown or reddish brown or red, nor whether it is silk or the finest broadcloth (also expensive). The artist has also depicted him wearing very fine linen. I have pasted in a comparable portrait by Alexis Grognard, who was active in Lyon, about 1780. It is in the Musee des Beaux-Arts there. You would also find similar suits on Britons and Americans in portraits.

The main distinction is that this is not a fancy French court suit, such as you find in the portraits of Louis XVI in the 1780s–92 because it has does not have a fancy embroidered or brocaded edge and collar. Nor is it uniform which would tend to have contrasting facings and metal (often) braid.'

An image of the portrait by Alexis Grognard is attached below (photo credit: PubHist.com)

1 attachment
Jo Langston,

Great info about the dress. The dating of c.1780 would therefore rule out Sancho who died that year, aged around 50. A number of sources testify to him being quite corpulent.

This is a link to 'The Lost African: Slavery and Portraiture in the Age of Enlightenment', Apollo' (August 2006), in which John Madin, then Curator of Art at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, argued that this is a portrait of Ignatius Sancho by Allan Ramsay: https://bit.ly/33x9F6D

Louis Musgrove,

So a date of 1780 would rule out Ramsey who gave up painting in 1770. Who in 1780 would have the ability to paint a picture in this style?? In England perhaps John Singleton Copley ( Jacinto above--This is a bit like some american portraits) or Zoffany ( Dido Belle) or George Romney. Any other suggestions????? But there do seem to be a lot of French oval portraits of this style and date and some of them are very good. Is there any clue in the construction of the canvas/framing or on the back to give an idea as to the painting's origin??????

Martin Hopkinson,

Jules David Prown , the expert on Copley, is still Professor Emeritus of the History of Art at Yale University

Jacinto Regalado,

If the date is c. 1780, Copley settled in London in 1774, so if this is by him, he would have painted it in England. Romney is possible, but I think Copley was more given to oval portraits. Zoffany is not out of the question, but I think less likely.

Jacinto Regalado,

I expect the donor's papers at the Courtauld may need to be gone over, especially if he had interests in Paris (as previously noted by Martin Hopkinson).

Jo Langston,

I have been in touch with the Coutauld and am planning a visit during the week of 25 November. If anyone would like to join me to do this research together, do let me know (jlangston@christies.com). I’m not a paintings expert so I’d welcome a collaborator.

Martin Hopkinson,

It would be worth looking in the boxes of photographs of paintings in the Witt Library under Ramsay and Copley on your visit, as well as in the Turner Papers. The Witt Library may still be in Somerset House and now accessible from a door inside the courtyard. It had not moved to the King's Cross site when I last consulted it

Jacinto Regalado,

When and by whom was the Ramsay attribution made? Does the collection know any more about provenance than who gave it the picture and when?

The Ramsay attribution was made by John Madin In his 2006 article, for which Marion provides a link above (08/11/2019). It is ruled out, however, if the portrait can be dated to c.1780 on grounds of costume, since Ramsay’s career as a painter was cut short by a fall in 1773. Madin’s figure 1 does helpfully show that the portrait is in the form of a painted oval on a rectangular canvas.

Jacinto Regalado,

Thank you, Richard. So what does the Ramsay catalogue raisonné say about this picture?

James Fairhead,

Given this date of c. 1780, perhaps Ottobagh Cugoano was the sitter and Maria Cosway the artist. Cugoano was born in Ghana c. 1757 and enslaved to the Caribbean but freed in England in 1772, and by 1784 (probably earlier) he was employed as Maria and Richard Cosway’s servant and through them joining circles from William Blake and the Prince of Wales. He was a friend of Equiano and was active with him in the ‘Sons of Africa’ abolitionist group. Maria Cosway’s famous self-portrait strikes a similar pose in oval. Cosway also painted the Duchess of Devonshire, the leading patron of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor to which Cugoano was affiliated – an organisation instrumental in founding the Sierra Leone Colony in 1786, but to which Cugoano and Equiano objected. Cosway’s self portrait is at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maria_Hadfield_Cosway_-_Self-portrait_in_Uffizi_Gallery.jpg
But is better on Pinterest.

Jacinto Regalado,

I rather doubt Maria Cosway was capable of such a work, based on what I've seen by her. Her husband was a better artist, but he was a miniaturist.

Jacinto Regalado,

Pace John Madin, comparison of this sitter with the known portrait of Sancho by Gainsborough does not support that our man is Sancho, but rather the opposite--even apart from considerations of date. The eyes, and especially the nose, are quite different in both men. Sancho's eyes were "sweeter" and softer, or more languid, whereas those of the Exeter sitter are more glaring and even bulging. Our man's nose is very broad, with flared nostrils, and rather flat, not at all like the "prettier" nose of Sancho. Also, despite his corpulence by the time Gainsborough painted him, Sancho's face is not as full or puffy as that of the Exeter sitter, and does not appear as round overall. Our man is certainly not Sancho.

Jacinto Regalado,

Madin's 2006 article does say that no provenance information is known for this picture, and that when it was given to the museum in 1943, it was attributed to Reynolds. That implies the donor, Turner, considered it an English rather than a French picture, and that (presumably) he did not acquire it in France. If his papers shed no further light on the matter, the possibility of Copley as the painter should be pursued further.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

I don't think we should as yet fix an idea in our heads that this red woollen tailored jacket, waistcoat and bag wig date from c. 1780...(sorry, Lesley)... though I agree it is NOT a uniform. The collar seems to me to be low in style for that date. The painting could easily date from 1765-1775- see my attachments of somewhat similar garments albeit that they are French. etc. :
1: Suit, silk French, 1765, LACMA 20007.211
2: Jacques Cazotte, by Perronneau 1763 . Nat. Gall.
3: Man in red coat, Perroneau, 1770-75, Atheneum

John Forbes,

Ramsay painted many portraits in three quarter profile. His depiction of buttons, though, never took on the oval shapes in perspective seen here.

Martin Hopkinson,

Were there any auctions after Copley's or his son Lord Lyndhurst's death, other than the latter's at Christie's on 5 March 1864, the catalogue for which should be checked?

Thanks, Marion. The portrait has a somewhat different feel, compared with the Art UK image, when in the video we see the full rectangular canvas within a frame.The latter appears to be of the British 'Maratta' style, favoured in the second half of the eighteenth century. However, it looks a little bright in relation to the painting and is possibly not original to it.

Jo Langston,

Martin - thank you for your suggestion of checking the Christie's sale catalogue of the collection of The Hon. Lord Lyndhurst, John Singleton Copley's son, 5 March 1864. I did this today...

Lot 69 of the sale in the section entitled 'Pictures by J.S. Copley, R.A' is 'Head of a favourite negro. Very fine. Introduced in the picture of 'The Boy saved from the Shark'.' It sold for £11, 11 shillings to 'Isaac'. There was a commission bid from 'Rutley'
Unfortunately, there are no measurements nor a description of the dress. And no image.
But, it seems plausible from the comments in this forum that the entry relates to the Exeter picture. If so, we can establish the artist as John Singleton Copley and the sitter as the person depicted in Copley's paintings Watson and the shark, one of which is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
I attach images of the Christie's catalogue entries and of Watson and the shark, including a crop of the figure who might be the person depicted in the Exeter portrait. The website doesn't allow me to upload a high-res image of the full image of Watson and the shark but it can be downloaded here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Singleton_Copley_-_Watson_and_the_Shark_(Washington,_D.C.).jpg

We might have cracked this one, fellow Art Detectives!! Interested to hear your thoughts.

Jacinto Regalado,

The date of the shark picture is 1778. The possibility that our picture is the one in that 1864 sale catalogue is very tempting and clearly needs pursuing, but I would not immediately assume AD has cracked the case. Ideally, a Copley expert would address what is currently known about the picture mentioned in the catalogue.

Thank you, Jo, for checking the Christie's sale catalogue of 5 March 1864.

Would a head introduced into a history or genre painting not be just that - a close study of a head, as opposed to a refined head and shoulders portrait with such care given to the fine clothing as well?

Here is a hand-coloured mezzotint by Valentine Green after Copley, with Maggs Bros Ltd: https://bit.ly/2Kltk27

The sitter in the Exeter portrait has a markedly narrow upper lip compared with a very full lower lip. In this he differs from the black figure in Copley’s Watson and the shark picture. The Detroit head is closer in detail to that of the man in Copley’s shark picture, and, in any case, is exactly — in its unfinished state — the kind of thing one would expect to find In an artist’s posthumous studio sale.

Osmund Bullock,

The provenance and published references given online for the Detroit head specifically identify it as the 1864 Lyndhurst Sale lot 69 head, and state unequivocally that it is the one used in 'Watson and the Shark'. Certainly the subject seems a good match for the man in 'Watson...', while ours really looks nothing like him at all.

Despite his evident self-assurance, I wouldn't rule out ours being a smartly-dressed and well-favoured servant (though the unbuttoned waistcoat perhaps make it less likely). And I fully agree with Lou that the painting could easily date from significantly earlier than 1780. The dress style seems to have had a long lifespan – see these from the NPG's collection alone:

1758-9 - https://bit.ly/2XcPjgS; 1762 - https://bit.ly/2qTRoSG;
1772-3 - https://bit.ly/2NNSnN9; 1776 - https://bit.ly/2XePcBr;
1776 - https://bit.ly/2q5BDbt; 1779-81 - https://bit.ly/2CJlJpA;
1780 - https://bit.ly/2KoACCa; 1782 - https://bit.ly/376jfzz

If English, the unpowdered hair tends to ease us earlier (but is not a wholly dependable pointer); however many, perhaps most Americans didn't use powder at any period. I think the Copley idea has legs, and like others I seriously doubt Ramsay.

Martin Hopkinson,

Like others, I doubt if this is connected with Watson and the Shark on which there is a considerable bibliography see for instance
Roger B Stein , Copley's "Watson and the Shark" and aesthetic in the 1770s, State University of New York,, 1976
The Detroit Institute of Art 1992 exhibition catalogue John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark
Jennifer L Roberts, Failure to deliver. Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party, 1976
The 2013 Houston Museum of Fine Arts exhibition catalogue American adversaries . West and Copley in a transatlantic world, which features the painting on the cover.

There are also articles

and has anybody checked Prown yet? He must have discussed the sale catalogue

Jo Langston,

The Detroit picture is a much better fit to the figure in the Watson and the Shark painting. The facial expressions are different but it looks to me a bit like a study. Back to the drawing board...
So, the portrait in Exeter therefore isn’t lot 69 of the Copley sale in 1864. There are no other pictures in that sale that could be a match to the Exeter portrait.
I’ll check the Percy Moore Turner papers, and the Ramsay and Copley artists boxes next week at the Witt. If there are any other suggestions of artists boxes to be checked, do let me know.

Jacinto Regalado,

Another possible consideration is Gilbert Stuart, who worked in London for some years (c. 1775-1787).

Whaley Turco,

I have to say, My first impression of it was, Gilbert Stuart. He was studying with Benjamin West half of that time, but he was more than capable of painting that portrait on the day he landed in London. I am also of the belief that he created the Skating Minister. Not to roil the water but both portraits look like his work.

Jo Langston,

Last week I went to look at the Percy Moore Turner papers at the Courtauld. Among them were a few sale catalogues that relate to items sold at auction after his death, so the portrait in Exeter did not appear in the catalogues.

There were also a series of lists of his stock, but they are not comprehensive. The lists are compiled in alphabetical order (more or less) by artist's name and each entry has an inventory number. The inventory number on the reverse of the portrait in Exeter is 1757 but this inventory number is missing from the lists.

It's possible that the artist's surname begins with C given that inv. no. 1735 is by the artist Crome; 1783 by Cotman; 1801 by Cerutti. But, as you can see from the attached photos of a couple of pages from the list, the numbers jump around a bit.

I looked at what I thought were the most relevant artists boxes for Ramsay, Copley and Gilbert Stuart. I didn't come across the painting in Exeter, or anything I thought was particularly relevant but someone with a better knowledge of oil paintings might make a connection that I didn't.

Jacinto Regalado,

Well, if the name starts with a C, that would fit Copley. However, it would appear, though I could be mistaken, that the picture was given to the RAMM by Turner in his lifetime as a portrait by Reynolds.

If the picture is listed in the Percy Moore Turner papers it will almost certainly appear as by Reynolds. PMT regarded Reynolds as the author and, as John Madin points out, ‘made his gift presumably because of Reynolds’s family and early career connections with Devon.’ Reynolds was born at Plympton in that county.

For the record, the portrait appears in the ten-book series ‘The Image of the Black in Western Art’, of which the general editors are David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates Jr, with associate editor Karen C.C. Dalton. It features as a full-page colour illustration (Fig.184) in volume 3, part 3, ‘The Eighteenth Century’, edited by David Bindman, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press etc. 2011. The particular chapter is ‘4. The city between fantasy and reality’ written by David Bindman, Paul Kaplan and Helen Weston. The illustration is captioned: ‘Anonymous. A black man, sometimes thought to be Equiano’. The related text on pages 186-88 is as follows:

He [Olaudah Equiano] has often been assumed to be the subject of a fine anonymous portrait of a man in a red coat.* The man looks back to the viewer with a fresh gaze, but his features do not seem to correspond to the frontispiece [of ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano…’], and he appears to be wearing a tail wig, a sign of gentlemanliness alien to Equiano’s ideals. Whoever he is –- and one would love to know his identity –- he seems to belong more to the genteel environment of Ignatius Sancho than to the fiery driven world of Christian evangelism inhabited by Cugoano and Equiano.

* Reference to Anthony Tibbles, ed., ‘Translantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity’, London 1994, cat. no.161.

The authors of the chapter cited above do not seem to refer to John Madin's article of 2006. David Bindman was until recently Group Leader on Art Detective for British 18th century, except portraits, and may have further thoughts on this subject.

Reyahn King,

It's so exciting to see so much debate about this painting.

The evidence for either Sancho or Equiano is not firm but over and above that I want to raise another issue about eagerness to attribute the Exeter painting to either Sancho or Equiano - which is, were the sitter white, would we assume on such weak evidence that it has to be one of two named sitters? No, because there are lots of possibilities. We will only get further with this sort of debate when we acknowledge that there was a black elite in the 18th century and this man could be one of several (unresearched) possibilities from that circle without being Sancho or Equiano. If historians understand the detail of those black lives better and research them, we might get closer to being able to figure out who this is.

(My writing on this is now very out of date but if people wish to read my essay on that black elite in 1997, it was published by National Portrait Gallery in the book accompanying the Sancho exhibition).

Richard, I agree with your characterisation of Equiano but we could surmise that he was a bit of a dandy given the amount of description in his Narrative about buying a fine suit when he celebrated his freedom. He's not badly turned out in the frontispiece engraving of him either!

Brycchan Carey,

This is a fabulous conversation which I have enjoyed reading very much. I agree wholeheartedly with Reyahn King's assessment. I have long believed that the sitter is probably unknown and almost certainly unknowable, unless significant new evidence arises. I think we can be reasonably certain, however, that the sitter is NOT either Equiano, Sancho, or Cugoano. He simply doesn't look like either of the former, and, if the latter, the painting is not in the style of either of the Cosways. It is purely wishful thinking to assume that the sitter is a celebrated, or even identifiable, historical figure.

We are not precisely certainly of the size of the black population in late-eighteenth-century England, and it was not as large as the 10,000+ figure that some contemporary sources suggested, but it was probably in the low thousands at any one time. A substantial proportion of this population worked in service, often as unfree labourers before 1772, more usually free, paid workers after that date. There were thus frequent opportunities for black domestic servants and artists to come into contact with one another in wealthy homes. Artists sometimes painted servants, black or white, at the request of employers (as Gainsborough apparently did with Sancho) or sometimes for their own reasons. Black servants sometimes sat as models for other black servants. The figure of Pompey, Francis Pierson's African servant, who features prominently in Copley's painting The Death of Major Pierson, was probably modelled by another black figure, apparently the servant of James Christie the auctioneer, with whom Copley was friendly.

We also have to be cautious about ascribing dates or identity based on the style or date of the clothing. We don't know if the suit of clothes was the sitter's own or, if it was, whether it was new and up-to-date or a hand-me-down that was 10 years behind the times.

The mystery continues, I'm afraid, and The Royal Albert Memorial Musuem are right to call it a 'Portrait of an African', but even adding the 'possibly Ignatius Sancho' is a step too far in my view.

All of this notwithstanding, it is a fine portrait!

James Fairhead,

Two excellent rejoinders. I wonder if the painting itself may hold more information? This is an important work and if it has not been investigated for overpainting of writing and the like, then should it not be? Marion Richards attached a very high quality scan (above) and when reducing to black and white and enhancing contrast, my imagination discerns (or projects) traces of lettering to the left of the sitter. Might AHRC or others be approached for resources?

Martin Hopkinson,

Two specialists to show this to - Professors David Bindmsn and Jean Michel Massing

Martin Hopkinson,

Thank you Richard for pointing this out.
The painting of the costume is not inconsistent wit Copley's style of just before he left America and soon after he settled in London
There is nothing in Prown's 2 volumes which can be related to this portrait

Whaley Turco,

To say the sitter could be unknown is kind of Silly. That is a very expensive portrait. Why do I say that. Look at the work and then go look at all the other portraits from that era. Whomever painted that portrait was a first class artist, and he was well paid. The fact that he was well paid narrows the field. To well known well off Africans of the time. There weren't that many. As for the Painter I'm sticking with Gilbert Stuart. and If I ever invent a time machine my first item of business will be to go tell artists to at least sign the back.

Constance Escher,

This portrait is included in an interior by the decorator Roger Banks- Pye Colefax & Fowler, Interior Inspirations, page 12. (London, 2001), but it is only a distant shot within an interior by Banks-Pye. Obviously it is a famous painting. The author of this book was NOT an art historian, but had a rare eye for the beautiful and so included the portrait.
I will see what I can find out, but from the above, the portrait may have been widely known and almost famous, so someone MUST know the name of the sitter. Constance K. Escher, historian

This discussion has now gone round in a complete loop to come back to roughly where it started. Before it goes round again, could I suggest that it either (a) winds up with the conclusion suggested by Brycchan Carey that "The Royal Albert Memorial Musuem are right to call it a 'Portrait of an African' but even adding the 'possibly Ignatius Sancho' is a step too far" - and that the artist remains 'attributed to Ramsey': or (b) it focuses solely on the artist, if anyone really has a better case to make than the default one for Ramsey as closest.

The desire to identify any unknown sitter is natural enough but overloaded with wish-fulfilment in this case for reasons which are essentially political (in the broadest sense). None of the 'known names' fit for reasons well rehearsed above. If the man really were some other 'significant' figure in his time it is unlikely -though not impossible - that his identity would have been so thoroughly lost: more likely, in my view, is that he was a 'portrait-worthy, favoured dependant' of some sort if the work was commissioned by a third party, or (whether also that or not) primarily painted as a handsome model if done on the artist's own initiative 'to show what he could do'. Those scenarios may both be wrong but are as far as reasonable speculation can go given general circumstances of the time, until/unless further information positively identifying him appears. The fact that such a fine portrait exists does not axiomatically mean that the sitter must have been a 'man of wider consequence' or the one who commissioned it: that's what I mean by political wish-fulfilment. He may have been, but it needs positive proof.

The dress debate has been informative but what is shown (c. 1760-80) brackets 1773 as the year Ramsey stopped painting. It's also worth remembering that sitter's clothes were not necesarily their own: as today they could be hired (or borrowed), not least for portrait purposes, or an artist could put a model into the clothes he wished -either actually, as 'studio props', or simply adding them in the work. (Uniforms, for example, were often borrowed /worn for modelling purposes by someone other than the 'head' they appeared under -let alone clothes being separately added by 'drapery' specialists.)

Though only tangential, the following extract from the 'London Evening Post', 12-15 June 1773, issue 7090, may be of interest as a brief sidelight into the lively black social scene of the period. Spotted some years ago, by accident, but worth noting and perhaps useful to someone:

‘Among the sundry fashionable routs or clubs that are held in town, that of the Black or Negro servants is not the least: On Thursday night no less than 59 of them, men and women, supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music; consisting of violins, French horns, and other instruments, at a public-house in Southwark. No Whites were allowed to be present, for all the performers were Blacks.’

Howard Jones,

Perhaps the reason why arguments have taken a circular route is that the pictures of Sancho and Equiano are distinctive but at the same time show almost matching features. At first sight the Art Uk picture looks like Olaudah Equiano but closer examination suggests Ignatius Sancho to be the more likely subject.

The only portrait I can see for Equiano comes at the front of his autobiography but at least the identification is certain. He is very well turned out suggestion that he took great care of his appearance.

The portrait of Sancho said to be by Gainsborough shows Ignatius Sancho as a gentleman who is less particular over his appearance. His collar is out of alignment and his hair at the front is odd. It might be OK as a portrait but if by Gainsborough the work is nowhere near his best. (Even if it is historically important as Sancho was the UK's first black voter and a writer and musician). Perhaps if the Gainsborough painting was cleaned it might be clearer.

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum portrait being discussed is a much finer portrait. Artist tend to be better at painting more familiar faces. Portraying a black gentleman at this time in England or Europe would have been extremely unusual but the portrait is outstanding.

This man is well turned out but this might also have been appropriate for Sancho earlier in his career when he was working as a butler. The face for the Art UK picture may not suggest an immediate match but in the Gainsborough portrait he would have been older and perhaps more dissolute. The portrait in Equiano's book appears to show a man with a thicker and shorter top lip.

There are many important portraits across the country in which the sitter is clearly incorrectly identified whether they are Courtiers or Queens. It is good to see that in this instance a substantial effort is being made to check the identity of the sitter as well as the name of the painter.

Naming this portrait as Ignatius Sancho, as a younger man, appears to me to be likely to be the correct identification. I believe that a request was made for a photo showing the back of the canvas to be shown. Has it been possible to do that yet?

Osmund Bullock,

Pieter, that June 1773 story about the black servants' musical club-night was actually lifted, most of it verbatim, from a piece in the London Chronicle nearly a decade earlier: https://bit.ly/3bBt3Td & https://bit.ly/2WCToft. This Feb 1764 original version was within a few days copied, as was common, by provincial papers - see attached. But it's a surprise to find it being regurgitated almost word-for-word as an allegedly new report quite so many years later - I guess hack journalists have always looked for the easy option.

Mark Wilson,

The Gainsborough portrait of Sancho which has been at the National Gallery of Canada since 1907:


seems pretty well-provenanced for artist and sitter and even to exact date. According to Reyahn King's 1997 essay (via Wiki):

"[...] there is an inscription by antiquarian William Stevenson on the back of the canvas stating that Gainsborough completed the portrait in one hour and 40 minutes on 29 November 1768. Stevenson was the person Sancho corresponded with most frequently. This was the same time as the Duchess had her portrait done"

A Bartolozzi 1781 engraving based on it:


was used as the frontispiece for a posthumous collection of letters (which suggests the portrait stayed with the family) and credits Gainsborough, then still alive. He moved in the same literary/musical circles as Sancho and may well have done it as a gift to a friend. While Sancho was nominally working as a valet at the time, I suspect his role was nearer to that of a modern PA and there may not have been the need to be as 'dressy', especially in such an informal portrait.

The quickness of execution may be exaggerated, but it explains it having a less finished quality that you would normally expect from a Gainsborough of this period.

As to the Exeter portrait, if it is of Sancho it would have to date to around 1750 when Sancho was in service with the Montagues for the first time and was around 20. It's not impossible but the dress doesn't seem to match with that date, especially if a hand-me-down from a slightly earlier period. And there's not a lot of facial resemblance to the Gainsborough, even allowing for time and gout. Ramsay did a lot of brownish feigned oval portraits around then, but I'm not convinced it matches his style either.

As Reyahn King says above it doesn't have to be anyone we know of today, but a portrait of an unknown sitter of this quality would normally be described as 'an unknown gentleman' and there's not that many black people around that match that at the time, so identification should at least be easier than normal. The sitter's queue might perhaps hint at a military link, though they're not unknown with civilians of this age either.

Thanks Osmund: plus ca change etc, but interesting: I wonder how 'old copy' was lying around so long for an idle hack to plagiarize it so exactly, but changing the weekday, the number of participants and the location. If both reports are true in substance then at least the first was not just an 'unusual' occurence: unfortunately the fact the second was copied at all suggests it might just be a 'fake news' filler.

Jacinto Regalado,

Based on the known portrait of Sancho by Gainsborough, this one is not of Sancho and it should not have been put forward as if it were, when the matter is at best questionable and certainly not settled.

Google's current Black History Month use of the Exeter image as Sancho is another case of of the wish-fulfilment to which I alluded on 16/5/2020. It is pointless to complain of such things, only to note them as instances of the greater attractions of plausible myth over factual probability, when there are other motives prompting them. It is unnecessary and misleading sleight-of-hand, given that the Gainsborough portrait is unarguably of Sancho, and I tend to agree with Mark that the likely reason is because the Exeter image's 'youthful cool' hits the target demographic better than Gainsborough's rendering as 'old, stout and gouty', dignified as it also certainly is - not least for something known to have been done at a single sitting of no more than an hour and three-quarters.

Can this discussion stream now close? It has very thoroughly turned over all the evidence so far known without being able to advance on who the Exeter sitter or artist really were, though the Ramsey attribution remains the most plausible: there have been some especially useful specialist comments on the matter of dress dating in particular.

As often in these long and unresolved exchanges, the vertical layout tends to hide the fact that additions eventually become repetitive rather than going anywhere new: that always seems to me a good prompt to wind things up.

Howard Jones,

Lets hope Google do not accept that gentlemen like Equiano or Sancho all look the same. But anyway minimal cognisance of the individual faces of sitters is a major problem for art historians in general for all unnamed historical portraits.

For more than one hundred years Ancient Egyptian art historians convinced themselves ancient artist would only be employed if they could consistently produce portraits which did not match the face of the Pharaoh they were copying. Since archaeological facial reconstructions were pioneered by the Russian Professor Mikhail Gerasimov the reconstructed faces of Egyptian mummies have made it abundantly clear to everyone (except Egyptologists who remain in denial) that ancient Egyptian artist were producing exceptional sculptured and later 2D painted life like portraits.

Not surprisingly the identities for many unnamed sitters in early English paintings and portraits have been confused over the centuries. But little interest has been shown by galleries in correcting even glaring mistakes. As noted above if a painting is provided with a fashionable identification this gets reinforced by a Media scramble. A good example is the Hatchland Park painting of Lady Norton re-identified as the cross dressing Earl of Southampton (allegedly Shakespeare's young lover). As it had good provenance they thought it had to be right.

However looking more closely at the painting we can see that the portrait is not that of a cross dressing man but a portrait of a real woman. It depicts the spirited young Lizzy Vernon who snared the Earl in marriage (by representing his mirror image) to become his wife and the Countess of Southampton.

There are many similar cases where senior art historians ignoring portraiture have been led astray and even galleries like the British Museum can remain determined not to rectify mistakes.

How many leading Art Historians have ever attended an art course studying facial identification? Probably less than one.

Below is a link to a coffin portrait and a reconstructed face from the Roman period in Egypt.


Here -solely for possible passing interest - is a recent (2006) bronze-bust rendering of Olaudah Equiano : it is currently on display in the Queen's House at Greenwich in a better light than the stark studio images here-attached show it, and which don't do it best credit as a striking piece despite the odd white patination (no doubt intended as 'symbolic').


Don't pay too much attention to the accompanying current text which is a the 'usual PC stuff' needing a sharper pen of editorial respectability and historical rigour put through it. It certainly implies, rightly or not, that the sculptor was apparently misled by the frequent use of the Exeter image as Equiano, even though also rather unclearly acknowledging that the engraving in his autobiography is the only 'plausible' (or in plain English, 'reliable') portrait of him. The piece itself self-evidently owes a major
debt in general form to the unidentified sitter at Exeter.

As just another passing point, it is fairly clear that the Exeter man is wearing a fashionable wig with a long queue (as also the bust).
In the Equiano print of 1789 he is fairly clearly with his own hair and, since it is apparently of tight natural African curl, not likely to be with a queue, or at least a long one. If they are there, even if short, prints generally tend to show some slight indication such as the loop of a ribbon bow.

Kieran Owens,

Was it fashioned in 2006 after the portrait, or some other visual source?

As I said above, this modern bust is self-evidently largely based on the Exeter painting, despite the rather woolly NMM online description implying (I think and, if so, rightly) that the only reliable image of Equiano is the 1789 print. Personally I'm not at all clear from it what the sculptor thought, though my suspicion is that she probably gave the Exeter painting more credence as of Equiano than it deserves given that the medium through which she encountered it (as the online text says) was through 'book covers' - which must be modern ones using it and implying it is Equiano.

The whole thing is 200 years-plus ex-post-facto, and has no bearing on who the Exeter image really shows.

It really is time this one shut down : third request/prompt!

Thanks KIeran: can you flip the Orme print L to R?

He's a well-known engraver. W. Denton, the artist is just a name: the NPG has one other print by him and working dates of 1792-95 (though the former should drop back to 1789 at least): BM has nothing. I hadn't previously notice Equiano is holding an open bible with the citation of Acts 4:12 which (King James version) is 'Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.' Though baptised 'C of E' at St Margaret's, Westminster in February 1759, he later became (as many in the more modest levels of society) a devout Methodist.

With thanks to Kieran for the composite, the Exeter sitter is definitely not Equiano. At risk of repeating what has probably already been said, there are at least four key differences in physiognomy:
1. Our sitter's eyes are much more rounded than Equiano's
2. His nose is considerably broader
3. The area between nose and mouth is decidedly greater
4 His upper lip is narrower

I agree with Pieter that discussion re the identity of the sitter should be closed: it has proved impossible to answer the question in the discussion's heading. There is no documentary evidence for the identity and there are no clues as to where we might seek such evidence. Falling back on pictorial comparisons, I agree that it is mere wish-fulfilment to associate our sitter with any one of the tiny number of surviving portraits of black subjects which have unquestionable identities. In all probability our portrait is a unique image and it would be over-optimistic to expect to find another image of the same man for comparison. And after all, a specific identity eluded even the editors and authors of the definitive volumes of 'The Image of the Black in Western Art' (see 08/12/2019), who were working on their topic over many years.

That said, is there still scope for considering the attribution further, even though this was not part of the original question? Unfortunately there is nothing in Allan Ramsay's work with is comparable in terms of subject matter and I am not sure whether we ever came to a consensus of opinion as to whether the artist might be British, Anglo-American or French.

Incidentally, followers of this long discussion might be interested to note for comparison lot 246 in Sotheby's London sale of 29 July 2020, John Taylor's modest drawing dated 1776 of a black servant of the Lawrence family:

The price realised, £137,000 with fees, against an estimate of £1,000 to 1,500, is a clear indication of the rarity of such images. In this case the subject, a groom I suggest, is identified though not by his own name. He seems to be wearing hand-me-down clothes (a subject that has featured earlier in this discussion): one of the epaulettes of his coat is missing. Our own black sitter is perhaps a servant holding office in a well-to-do or aristocratic household but clearly a servant of a very different order and definitely not dressed in hand-me-downs.

Kieran Owens,

One last point against this being of Equiano by Ramsay is that Ramsay, apart from one portrait of the King, had given up painting by 1770, just four years after Equiano has become a free man from slavery, and certainly well before the latter became well known for his abolitionist activities. The engraving, to which we have been comparing him, was produced in 1789, five years after Ramsay's death. Taking all of that into consideration, the portrait is either by Ramsay of a totally different black man, painted before 1770, or it is possibly of Equiano but is highly unlikely to be by Ramsay, unless it was painted in the two years following Equiano's arrival in England in 1768 and Ramsay's giving up painting in 1770.

Osmund Bullock,

I am as anxious as Pieter to see this discussion closed, or it will go on for ever, and probably to no significant purpose as far as the sitter's identity is concerned.

However I must comment on something Richard said about the charming John Taylor drawing at Sotheby's (which I'd quite missed). I think it's quite wrong to infer from the single epaulette that Taylor's servant sitter is wearing hand-me-down clothes, and conclude he must be "a servant of a very different order" (to ours, if he be a servant). In 1776 one epaulette only was what would be found on the majority of uniform coats of officers of all ranks in the British army**, and I think it likely the sitter's livery coat design was at least in part inspired by that. Though the coat shape is much closer to a cavalry one (without lapels), it was infantry officers who had the epaulette on the right shoulder - cavalry had it on the left. See our own discussion here https://bit.ly/30uZOid for a cavalry one one of c.1777, and the attached image of a forebear of mine c.1780 for the infantry.

If anything is to be inferred from the lone epaulette (and it's a bit of a leap), it is that the servant concerned was senior enough to be considered a sort of 'officer' by his employer; and that employer may have been a military man himself.

**Epaulettes were introduced by a Royal Warrant of Dec 1768. This prescribed that cavalry officers should have an "embroidered or laced Epaulette of Gold or Silver, with Fringe, on the Left Shoulder," apart from Light Dragoons, who had one on each shoulder. Infantry officers were to have a similar epaulette "on the Right Shoulder," with the exception of officers of the Grenadier Company of each Regiment, who were to have one on each shoulder.

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Jacinto Regalado,

They still look like two clearly different faces to me, Kieran.

Kieran Owens,

I know it is off topic, Osmund, but is it possible that the man in the Sotheby's drawing is carrying a curry comb and was therefore somehow attached to the cavalry? Or is this implement too modern to be included here? It is certainly a large brush of some function, surely one that is relevant to the gentleman's occupation.

Christy Symington's video overlay of the the two images is uncanny allowing they must be about 20 years apart - irrespective of being the same individual or not - simply based on apparent age (early 20s?) in the Exeter one and the Equiano print being reasonably presumed as c.1788. But if Equiano sat to anyone in the slot between his return to England from a long stretch in the West Indies in September 1767 and his departure (as a servant to Dr Charles Irving) on the Royal Naval Arctic expedition to Spitsbergen in which the young Nelson was also involved, it is remarkable that he did not mention it in his 'Interesting Narrative'. He anyway spent some of that time at sea on a previous merchant voyage before starting to work for Irving, and prior to that training as a hairdresser off the Haymarket between October 1767 and February 1768.

He returned from the W.I. with 37 guineas savings (modern equivalent about £6,700) but was very careful with it, and had no 'fixed abode' or reason to have a portrait painted at that time, so the only conceivable way it might have been done were the ones we have already rehearsed.

(1) Commissioned by an employer -which is not credible in Irving's case (at least while Ramsey was still painting) and probably not at all. Irving was a scientist, at the time investing in the process of distilling fresh water from salt by the apparatus that still bears his name, which was why he and Equiano went to test it on the Spitsbergen voyage.

(2) It might be more plausible that Equiano - who saw hairdressing and the care of wigs (including similar to what the Exeter man is wearing), and not least at sea as an on-board service from which a sailor could supplement his income - was also not averse to sitting as an artist's model, for payment. In late 1767-68 he was in the right place to get such work (it was also when he learnt to play the horn from a musical Haymarket neighbour): but opportunity is still not proof, especially since his autobiography is detailed and to best of my recall at least, he does not mention it.

Its not often one gets a picture which so many people want to be 'someone' (remembering that both Sancho and Equiano have been in the frame and the former seriously argued by John Madin) but which so successfully resists proof of being 'anyone' despite the strong temptations it presents to draw whichever conclusion the eye of the beholder wants to see.

The attached phone snap, taken on the wing a couple of months ago, gives a rather better impression than the database shots of Christy Symington's Equiano bust (NMM ZBA8731), as it currently appears in the Queen's House.

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