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The Sancho Portrait

Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of Ignatius Sancho

The portrait of Ignatius Sancho was painted at Bath on 29 November 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). Gainsborough, perhaps the greatest British painter of the eighteenth century, resided at Bath from 1760-1774. As a scene of fashionable life, Bath attracted many of the wealthy and well-connected, who also brought their household servants with them. Gainsborough painted Sancho's employers, the Duke and Duchess of Montagu, at the same time. There is no evidence that Sancho and Gainsborough were personal friends, although clearly they met when the portrait was painted. The acquaintance was a brief one: the portrait took Gainsborough only one hour and forty minutes to paint.

The portrait was engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi for the frontispiece of The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, which appeared in 1782. It came up for sale in 1889, occasioning a small flurry of letters in Notes and Queries. It now hangs in the The National Gallery of Canada.

This is the only portrait of Sancho that we have. However, in the nineteenth century, it was conjectured that William Hogarth (1697-1764) had used Sancho as a model for his work Taste in High Life. This is now considered doubtful and it seems unlikely that Hogarth and Sancho ever actually met. More recently, it has been suggested that the colour portrait often thought to be of Olaudah Equiano is actually of Ignatius Sancho. For this argument, see Madin, John, 'The Lost African: Slavery and Portraiture in the Age of Enlightenment', Apollo: the International Magazine of Art and Antiques (August 2006), 34-9. Read this article online

Francesco Bartolozzi's engraving of Gainsborough's portrait of Ignatius Sancho


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