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Exeter City Council’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) announces name change for its most celebrated portrait

The painting formerly known as ‘Portrait of an African’, which has been in the RAMM collection for 80 years, has been renamed to more accurately reflect its history and sitter.

Donated to the museum by Percy Moore Turner in 1943, the striking work is RAMM’s most celebrated portrait. However, a lack of information on the painting’s past has prompted speculation about its sitter. In the 1960s his identity was proposed as the author and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797), a speculation that remained until 2006 when, writing in the art magazine Apollo, former RAMM curator John Madin proposed another abolitionist and author: Charles Ignatius Sancho (c.1729-1780).

As ideas around the identity of the portrait shifted through the decades so too did the title of the work. By 2019 it was known as ‘Portrait of an African (probably Ignatius Sancho)’.

In a video commissioned by RAMM for the 2022 exhibition ‘In Plain Sight: Transatlantic slavery and Devon’, a selection of interviewees including Black artists, writers and museum professionals gave their responses to the piece, and considered the question of its title.

‘Bearing in mind growing historical evidence for a thriving community of African-Britons in Georgian England’, Julien Parsons, Senior Collections Officer at RAMM explains, ’it seems inappropriate to continue to label ‘our man’ as African rather than British, or indeed some other nationality’.

On 4 May, a group of experts assembled by London’s Courtauld Institute of Art and the Royal Academy visited RAMM to reconsider the painting’s title, and ultimately opted for something more expressive based on the man’s distinctive clothing: ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’.

Exeter City Council lead for culture Cllr Laura Wright says: ‘This enigmatic portrait is one of the stars of RAMM’s collection, and it is important to us that the painting’s title accurately reflects the conversations around its sitter, and broader conversations about Black Britons through history. We are grateful to everyone who has contributed their time and expertise to the renaming of the piece, and are pleased to now be able to refer to it as ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’.’

Parsons is hopeful that a combination of history and science may yet lead the museum to the true identity of the Man in a Red Suit. ’Please don’t take this as an acknowledgement of failure,’ he says. ‘I still believe the sitter and artist are unknown rather than unknowable, and work continues.’

Read Julien Parsons’ full blog on the ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’ here: rammcollections.org.uk/research-blog