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Exeter museum’s iconic painting ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’ takes pride of place in Royal Academy’s Entangled Pasts, 1768-now exhibition

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM)’s enigmatic portrait, which features an unknown sitter, is on show for the duration of the exhibition at Burlington House.

The Royal Academy’s Pasts, 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change brings together ‘over 100 major contemporary and historical works as part of a conversation about art and its role in shaping narratives of empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and colonialism – and how it may help set a course for the future.’ Featured artists include Yinka Shonibare, Sonia Boyce and Hew Locke alongside works by JMW Turner and Joshua Reynolds.

One of the Exeter City Council museum’s most well-known paintings, ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’ is appearing in the London exhibition following a 5-month starring role in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum’s Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance.

The painting has undergone numerous name changes in its time as the sitter and artist’s identity have been debated, most recently from ‘Portrait of an African’ to ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’, following research supporting the existence of vibrant Black communities in Britain as far back as the 1700s. Research continues into the artist and sitter, including scientific analysis at the Courtauld Institute carried out before the portrait was displayed at the Royal Academy, which may help to reveal the identity of both.

RAMM’s Collections & Content Manager Julien Parsons said: ‘We’re excited to see this celebrated painting in such an important exhibition at the Royal Academy. It is an intriguing and beautiful work of art which prompts a great deal of valuable debate. We are so fortunate to have it in Exeter’s fine art collection’. 

Esther Chadwick, Lecturer in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art, said: ‘We are truly delighted to have been able to include this remarkable portrait in the opening room of Entangled Pasts. It counts, along with Gainsborough’s portrait of Ignatius Sancho hanging next to it, as one of a very small handful of autonomous portraits of Black sitters made in eighteenth-century Britain. The beauty of its execution and the penetrating yet humane gaze of the sitter invite visitors to consider the complex status of Britain’s Black population in the decades surrounding the foundation of the Royal Academy.

‘The fact that the identity of the sitter has been lost over time also raises questions about history’s gaps, who is named and remembered and why—similar concerns to those raised by Francis Harwood’s Bust of a Man, with which the portrait is also powerfully in dialogue.’

‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’ was most recently on display in Exeter in 2022, for RAMM’s exhibition In Plain Sight: Transatlantic slavery and Devon. Watch a video in which speakers including artist Joy Gregory and opera singer Peter Braithwaite discuss the importance of the painting, and its various name changes, here: https://ramm.uk/PoAFilm

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change is at the Royal Academy’s Burlington House until 28 April 2024. Find out more at royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/entangled-pasts