‘Three-quarters, kit-cats and half-lengths’: British portrait painters and their canvas sizes, 1625-1850

4. The demise of standard sizes

This survey of standard canvas sizes used by British artists has followed the development of a range of sizes over more than two centuries. From the mid-17th to the mid-19th century, most life-size portraits conformed to one of the prevailing standard sizes, the exceptions usually being portrait groups, seated whole-lengths, children’s portraits and portraits commissioned for particular positions.

An article appeared in one of the early issues of The Art Union journal in 1839 decrying the use of standard sizes by portrait painters, claiming that ‘the dimensions of a whole-length, half-length, &c are regulated, not by the character of the subject, or the taste of the painter, but by the wisdom of the colourman and canvass-strainer’.[140] By the mid-19th century the system of a limited range of standard formats was breaking down under the profusion of sizes available from artists’ colourmen. In its place the idea of using the most appropriate size of canvas took hold. Ford Madox Brown wrote to a patron concerning a double portrait in 1872: ‘The proper way to treat such a subject nevertheless would be to do them down to about the knees in a group. They would call this I suppose Kitcat or 3/4 - but I do not myself mean any particular size, but rather a picture of such a size as would best suit a group of the husband and wife - down to about the knees.’[141] In the case of John Everett Millais he tended to prefer narrower formats than standard but would sometimes order canvas with extra material all around to allow him flexibility. He would test out his portrait formats as he progressed, sometimes sketchily indicating a possible reduction in height or, more often, width before deciding on the final canvas size that would most suit his purpose.[142] With another portrait painter, John Collier, his ‘Register of Paintings’ reveals how his practice evolved: while he used standard names to describe his canvas sizes from 1874 to 1886, from then on he increasingly specified his sizes in inches and by the close of his career in 1934 many if not most of his canvases differed from the traditional sizes.[143]

In colourmen’s catalogues the range of stock sizes of stretched canvas expanded enormously, so much so that by 1910 Winsor & Newton Ltd were listing ninety-nine sizes including the traditional portrait sizes.[144]The modern practice whereby the traditional three-quarters (30 x 25 ins) became known as a half-length, and the traditional half-length (50 x 40 ins) became known as a three-quarter length commenced as early as the 1840s, when Mrs Jameson defined a three-quarters as a figure seen nearly to the knees in her Handbook to the Public Galleries of Art; the style was followed in the catalogue of the three National Portraits exhibitions, 1866-8, and in Graves & Cronin’s catalogue of the works of Joshua Reynolds in 1899.[145] But most colourmen continued to use the old designations until the eve of the Second World War.[146]

Found a mistake? Have some extra information? Please contact Jacob Simon at jsimon@npg.org.uk.


[140] ‘On the size of works of art’ by ‘An old student’, The Art Union, vol.1, no.5, 15 June 1839, p.81. For somewhat similar comments by a French artist and writer, Paillot de Montabert, on the advantages to colourmen of the system of well-established standard canvas sizes, see Jacques-Nicholas Paillot de Montabert, Traité complet de la peinture, Paris, 1829-51, vol.9, p.147, as quoted by Anthea Callen, The Art of Impressionism: painting technique & the making of modernity, New Haven and London, 2000, p.18.

[141] Ford Madox Brown refers to his proposed portrait of Henry Fawcett and his wife, now in the National Portrait Gallery, size 42¾ x 33 ins (see British Library, Add. MS 43909, fol.246).

[142] See J.G. Millais, The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, 1899, vol.2, p.340, where Millais’s last order to Roberson is quoted, from 19 February 1896 for ‘plain canvas, 49 ¾ x 31; extra canvas all round’. Most of Millais’ three-quarter length portraits of men, measuring 36 or 37 ins wide, are three or four inches narrower than a standard 50 x 40 ins canvas, while his portraits of women are sometimes even narrower, measuring 32 or 33 ins wide; see Peter Funnell et al., Millais: Portraits, 1999, especially nos 40-3, 47, 49, 52-4.

[143] John Collier, ‘Register of Paintings’, photocopy in National Portrait Gallery Library.

[144] Winsor & Newton’s Catalogue 1910, 2nd ed, 1910, p.143.

[145] Anna Jameson, A Handbook to the Public Galleries of Art in and near London, 1842, vol.1, p.lii; Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of National Portraits…, South Kensington Museum, 1866-8; Algernon Graves and William Vine Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, 1899. It was not until 1932 that the National Portrait Gallery, London, adopted the modern practice in its catalogues.

[146] See for example James Newman Ltd, Catalogue, n.d. but c.1938, p.85.

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