The enigma of this iconic painting, Portrait of an African, challenged experts for many years. It was previously thought that the sitter was prominent Nigerian abolitionist and writer, Olaudah Equiano, who lived around 1745-1797. His autobiography “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African” depicts the horrors of slavery and influenced the enactment of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
More recent research has found that the sitter was almost certainly Ignatius Sancho 1729-1780, who was born on a slave ship and brought to England where he was forced to work as a child slave. Sancho was the first African known to have voted in a British election, he wrote a large number of letters which were collected and published in 1782.The painting, now attributed to Allan Ramsay (previously Sir Joshua Reynolds), is dated in the late 1750s. Portrait of an African is unusual for its time in that it is of an individual, which suggests the sitter was granted a status denied to virtually all other Africans in mid-18th century Britain.
The painting reached audiences nationwide when it appeared alongside other great British artworks chosen by the public in ArtsEverywhere during the summer of 2013. Exeter’s RAMM is home to this famous painting, go and see it!
Photo © Bridgeman Art Library/Royal Albert Memorial Museum.