My thanks to the staff of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Exeter, for drawing my attention to Paterson Joseph’s post on historical portraits of Africans. Mr Joseph raises several important issues but I would like to respond to his specific comments on my article for Apollo, The Lost African, Slavery and Portraiture in the Age of the Enlightenment, published in August 2006.
The Portrait of an African is arguably the most significant oil painting in the RAMM collection and certainly the most famous.
Historic black portraiture can be an emotive subject and as the then-curator I took my responsibilities seriously, knowing that almost any reassessment would prove controversial. For decades, the portrait had been associated with Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797) but in the 1980s and 1990s a succession of researchers had argued, rightly, that the date and context were wrong. In fact the easiest part of the research project was to establish that the sitter really could not be Equiano (for the sake of brevity I would refer the reader to the article). I knew full well that this might not be a popular outcome but, notwithstanding text restrictions and small-scale images, the article was a sincere attempt to move the enquiry onto new ground. The easy and indeed lazy option would have been to leave well alone.
With the help of external funding, I was able to visit public and private collections and archives around the UK. The resulting article built an argument on historical/social context, chronology, and means, motive and opportunity. My work did not uncover any incontrovertible evidence on the early provenance of the painting which would be needed to establish the identity of the sitter beyond doubt. However, the content was carefully considered at length and in respect of Mr Joseph's criticisms, I invite the independent reader to form his or her own conclusions.
In eighteenth-century Britain, the market for high-status portraiture was driven by the social elite – the aristocratic, privileged and famous. As Mr Joseph points out, a number of portraits include unnamed servants or slaves of African descent. These people are dressed and (most importantly) depicted as servants, whether singly or within groups. For the most part, they enjoyed neither social status nor individual rights and for this reason, historical records of their identities and personal stories are rare. I should add that the same is true of white British servants. The challenge, therefore, is not so much apathy on the part of curators and art historians but the scarcity of primary evidence. I have not worked in museums for several years and am to an extent 'out of the loop', but I would suggest that quite a body of research has been undertaken, though there is the potential for much more. For anyone interested in documented historical portraits of servants (both black and white) I would cite the remarkable series at Erddig, Wrexham, and the 2003 National Portrait Gallery publication Below Stairs by Anne French and Giles Waterfield.
The RAMM picture can be counted amongst a much rarer (single figures) category – that of a high-status society portrait of an African depicted as an individual gentleman. Access to the most successful and in-demand eighteenth-century British portrait painters required significant wealth and/or social connections. Africans had neither and, at the height of the slave trade, were widely regarded as sub-human. I argued in my article that as an exceptional African, it is most likely that the sitter would therefore have achieved social status and celebrity that is consistent with identified sitters in other comparable portraits. From that deductive reasoning, the case for Ignatius Sancho as the sitter was developed. Should conclusive primary evidence be discovered at any time then I would be genuinely thrilled – even if this happens to disprove my earlier arguments. If our perception of historic black portraiture is to develop in the future then curators and art historians should not be deterred from freely expressing their ideas. Outrage certainly draws attention. Evidence advances knowledge and understanding.
The RAMM is a great and progressive public resource and I wish its staff well in their efforts to promote the collections.
John Madin, art historian and former curator at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum