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The Equiano Portraits

Portrait of an unknown African, formerly thought to be Olaudah Equiano

There are two famous portraits of Olaudah Equiano. One, a black and white engraved portrait, is provided as a frontispiece to The Interesting Narrative. The other, a colour portrait in oils found in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter, is now known not to be of Equiano.

On this page I place the two portraits side by side, and it can clearly be seen that they are of different people.

The colour portrait is an important work, although we do not know who painted it. The sitter would have had to have spent some time posing for the artist, a significant event in the life of any person in the eighteenth century. If this portrait was of Equiano it is likely that he would have mentioned the painting in his autobiography. In addition, the clothes the sitter is wearing were fashionable in the early 1760s, at which point Equiano was rarely in England.

The black and white image was commissioned by Equiano for The Interesting Narrative, and for this reason we can be sure that it is a reasonable likeness of the author. It was painted by William Denton and engraved by Daniel Orme. The original painting is now lost.

The identity of the person in the colour image is unknown, although several theories have been put forwards. The most likely is that he was working as a servant for an aristocratic family who paid for the portrait, since we know of many portraits produced in similar circumstances. He might in that case have been enslaved or he may have been a free, paid labourer - we do not know and both are possible in the 1760s in England.

One suggestion is that this is a portrait of Quobna Ottabah Cugoano, who worked as a servant to the artist Richard Cosway, although there is no direct evidence for this. Another case has been made by John Madin who argues that this is a portrait of a young Ignatius Sancho. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery currently exhibit the painting simply as Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit to signal that they do not know who the sitter was.

Whoever the identity of the sitter really is, and we may never know for sure, we can be certain that it was not Equiano.

For more information see:

  • Reyahn King, 'Ignatius Sancho and Portraits of the Black Elite' in ed. Reyahn King, Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1997), pp. 15-43. King discusses the portrait at pp. 35-6.
  • John Madin, 'The Lost African: Slavery and Portraiture in the Age of Enlightenment', Apollo: the International Magazine of Art and Antiques (August 2006), 34-9.
  • Julien Parsons, 'Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit'

Engraving of Olaudah Equiano, from the frontispiece of the Interesting Narrative

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