Ignatius Sancho based on a work by Thomas Gainsborough

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    Ignatius Sancho,    by Unknown artist, after  Thomas Gainsborough,    circa 1802-1820,    NPG 7063,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Ignatius Sancho, campaigner for the abolition of transatlantic slavery and the first Black person to vote in a British general election.
Ignatius Sancho
by Unknown artist, after Thomas Gainsborough
gouache (body colour) or watercolour on ivory, circa 1802-1820
2 3/8 in. x 1 5/8 in. (61 mm x 42 mm) overall
NPG 7063
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 5 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Ignatius Sancho (about 1729–80) was a writer, composer, shopkeeper and campaigner for the Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . He was also the first person with African heritage to vote in a British general election.

Sancho was enslaved from a very young age, possibly from birth, as part of the transatlantic slave trade. He was taken from the Caribbean to London as a young, enslaved child. He lived there for most of his life and eventually gained his freedom.

This was at a time when Britain’s involvement in the slave trade was at its height. People were making huge profits from goods produced by enslaved African people in the Caribbean. It was also a time of deeply entrenched racism in Britain against Black people.

Despite these challenges, Sancho was a cultured and respected member of London society. He became well known for his writing about life, culture and politics in London in the 1700s, and the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the enslavement of African people.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Ignatius Sancho,    by Unknown artist, after  Thomas Gainsborough,    circa 1802-1820,    NPG 7063,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Ignatius Sancho, by Unknown artist, after Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1802-1820

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

    • Sancho is wearing a grey jacket and waistcoat with gold buttons and gold trim. He has a white cravat (a sort of tie) around his neck.
    • These are the sorts of clothes respected men of high status would have worn at the time. The gold tells us that they were expensive.
    • Sancho is shown here as a typical English gentleman.
    • Sancho was working as a personal servant for the Montagu family when this portrait was painted. His expensive clothes may also be a way of showing that his employer was wealthy and of high status.
    • We can only see Sancho’s head and shoulders. He is turned slightly and looking off to the side rather than looking at us, the viewer. This was a typical Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. for portraits of English men at the time.
    • A good deal of the portrait is taken up by his face. His eyes appear slightly closed and his expression looks confident and dignified.
    • He appears completely at ease and self-assured. This was considered appropriate for portraits of men of status.   
    • This is a miniature copy of another portrait made by the artist Thomas Gainsborough in 1768.
    • This copy was made in the early 1800s, about 20–40 years after Sancho died. It tells us that he continued to be remembered after his death.
    • This portrait is a miniature. It’s only about 6 cm by 4 cm – about half the size of a phone screen. The loop at the top of the frame means that it could be worn or carried, probably by someone who particularly wanted to remember Sancho or his important campaigning work.
Consider slavery – what it is – how bitter a draught and how many millions are made to drink it!
Ignatius Sancho, 1776

Who was Ignatius Sancho?

  • We can’t be sure of the details of Ignatius Sancho’s birth. It was said that he was born on a slave ship, but he later wrote that he was born in Africa.
  • At around the age of two, Sancho was taken to London. He was forced to work as a slave at a house in Greenwich. During this time, he met the Duke of Montagu who encouraged his education and gave him books to read.  
  • Sancho ran away from the house in Greenwich and persuaded the Duchess of Montagu to employ him.
  • He worked as a butler for the Duchess who left him money when she died. He then worked for the next Duke, as a personal servant. These were high status jobs and both his employers thought well of him.
  • Sancho taught himself to read and learned from many highly cultured visitors to the house.
  • Sancho retired from the Montagus through ill health and in 1774 opened a grocery shop with his wife Ann. As a financially independent man, who owned his own house, he was now allowed to vote. He was the first person of African descent to vote in a British general election, in 1774.  
  • Sancho used his talent for writing to campaign for the Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. and the enslavement of African people. He wrote letters to newspapers and people with power and influence. These letters vividly described the horrific nature of slavery.
  • His letters were collected and published after he died. The collection was popular and sold in large numbers.
  • His status as a highly educated Black person living in London challenged racist ideas of the time and was an important part of the abolition movement in Britain in the late 1700s.

Why is the portrait significant?

  • This is a portrait of a named Black man. This is very unusual for a British portrait from the 1700s and 1800s.
  • It is a copy of a portrait made by Thomas Gainsborough, a leading painter in England in the late 1700s, and a favourite of King George III and his family.
  • The original was painted in 1768, when Sancho was employed as a personal servant by the Duke of Montagu. Gainsborough also painted the Duke and Duchess of Montagu. They probably paid for this portrait and presented it to Sancho. 
  • Sancho is wearing a gold-trimmed coat and waistcoat, rather than the usual servants’ uniform. This shows how highly regarded he was by the Duke and Duchess of Montagu.
  • We don’t know how this miniature copy came to be made. It was painted about 20–40 years after Sancho died. 

Questions

  1. Why do you think it was unusual for a portrait of a named Black man to be made in Britain in the 1700s?
  1. Can you think of any other groups in society who might not have had their portraits painted around this time?

Next steps

Portraits of enslaved and previously enslaved people are very rare. Many contemporary artists explore these ‘gaps’ in the representations of our history through their work. Try researching artists such as Lubaina Himid, Joy Labinjo or Hannah Uzor.

Reflections

Between the 1500s and 1800s, millions of African people were kidnapped, sold and forced to work on Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. in the Caribbean and the Americas as part of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . Britain and other countries grew extremely rich from enslaved people’s labour. Generations of enslaved people resisted and rebelled against their brutal treatment. 

The transatlantic slave trade represents part of a complex and brutal period in our shared history. It can bring up strong reactions and raise many questions. Consider discussing these with a teacher or an adult you feel comfortable talking to. Use the links in this resource to find out more.