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John Canton

1 portrait of John Canton

John Canton, by Unknown artist, 1740s -NPG 809 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Early Georgian Portraits Catalogue

John Canton

by Unknown artist
1740s
19 1/4 in. x 15 1/2 in. (489 mm x 394 mm)
NPG 809

This portraitback to top

NPG 809 is only a head. The picture, according to Robert Canton, great-grandson of the sitter and donor of the picture, 'was originally full length, sitting in a chair with legs crossed and surrounded by mathematical instruments I think'. The son William, it seems, had inherited the portrait and 'spent his life travelling about, and at first carried it with him in the frame. Ultimately the frame was abolished and finally the head cut out of the canvas, in which state it descended from my father to me.' [1]
No other version is known apart from the picture sketched by Scharf in 1869 [2] at Alfred Canton's, [3] a dentist, 17 Great Marlborough Street. This was in a black painted oval; no books are shown, and it is almost certainly not NPG 809. James Yates, the antiquary, who collected information for a life of John Canton, suggested to the donor in 1871 that it was 'probably painted for some Club', perhaps Batson's Coffee House, or the Queen's Arms, Newgate Street to which the sitter may have belonged. [4] This has not been substantiated. Nor is there any mention of the portrait in the Canton papers at the Royal Society, of which the sitter was three times president.

Footnotesback to top

1) Letter to Scharf, 4 September 1888, NPG archives.
2) Sketchbooks of Sir George Scharf, MS in NPG archives, trustees series, XV, 63.
3) The donor's cousin, then head of the junior branch of the family.
4) Copy of letter, 8 January 1871, NPG archives.

Physical descriptionback to top

Greyish-brown eyes, nose somewhat retroussé, full lips, long grey wig; dark grey coat, unbuttoned but not open, no collar, plain white cravat; behind his head, dark green curtain partly conceals two books; bottom left, the left-hand spine lettered PRI [...]/2; [1] lit from the top right.

1) Now almost completely illegible.

Conservationback to top

Ultra-violet light reveals many retouchings in the face; surface cleaned 1895; relined, polished and varnished, 1896; it is not known precisely when it was cut down.

Provenanceback to top

Received, 1888, from Robert Canton.


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Kerslake, Early Georgian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1977, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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