This portrait of Ignatius Sancho, painted when he was about thirty-nine years old, shows a man fashionably dressed and posed as a gentleman, even though he was a paid, upper servant for the Duke of Montagu. At this time Sancho was a unique cultural figure, and was known as a "man of letters" (a highly literate person who had a wide knowledge of literature). He corresponded on literature and social issues with many individuals, including the famous writer Laurence Sterne. Sancho was also an amateur musician and composer, and published sixty-two short scores for songs, minuets, and country dances between 1767 and 1779.
Sancho lived in the Duke of Montagu's household from 1749 to 1773. His portrait was commissioned by the Duchess of Montagu when she had her own portrait painted by Gainsborough in his studio in Bath. Sancho was given this painting when he left the Duke's service to run a grocery business.
Ignatius Sancho was born around 1729 on board a slave ship crossing the Atlantic and was baptized at Cartagena in Spanish South America. He was brought to Britain as a two-year-old orphan and lived unhappily in the household of three sisters in London as a slave-servant, where his interests in education were ignored. The Duke of Montagu was a frequent visitor to the house and noticed Sancho, bringing him gifts of books. (The Duke had previously paid for the education of a Jamaican slave, Francis Williams, at Cambridge University.)
Sancho eventually entered the Montagu household as a servant about 1749 and there received further support for his intellectual talents and creative abilities. In 1758 Sancho married Anne Osborne, a woman from the West Indies; they had six children. Because of ill health, in 1773 he left the life of a domestic servant and became a shopkeeper, aided by an annual allowance from the Montagu family.