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

This article summarises the nature, supply and availability of canvas for artists in Britain. It surveys in detail the evolution and use of a range of standard sizes in British portrait painting over more than two centuries, using examples largely drawn from the National Portrait Gallery. It compares British sizes with those on the Continent and asks why such sizes were chosen.

Published April 2013. Please provide feedback to Jacob Simon at [email protected].

1. Introduction
1.1 The nature of canvas
1.2 The supply of canvas
1.3 The availability of wide canvas
1.4 The range of standard canvas sizes


2. Four historic sizes
2.1 The half-length
2.2 The three-quarters
2.3 The kit-cat
2.4 The whole-length or full-length


3. Further standard sizes
3.1 The Bishop’s half-length
3.2 The Bishop’s whole-length or King size
3.3 The head
3.4 Landscape formats


4. The demise of standard sizes

5. Britain and the Continent

5.1 Continental sizes
5.2 The rationale for standard sizes and their implications

Acknowledgements and sources

In the mid-1990s when I was first researching the subject, I benefited from discussions with Christopher Foley, Tim Moreton and Sophie Plender. I also received generous help from Jo Kirby, Nicholas Penny and Sally Woodcock and research assistance from Margaret Binnie. More recently Jo Kirby and Catharine MacLeod have kindly provided feedback and Caroline Rae has provided information. It gives me pleasure to acknowledge the conservators whose diligence over the years in reporting on portraits in the National Portrait Gallery collection has helped inform this survey: Ann Broomfield, Alan Cummings, Sophie Plender and Helen White.

The place of publication for books is London unless otherwise stated. Conservation and examination reports for portraits in the National Portrait Gallery collection can be found in the Gallery's records for the particular portrait. Copies of most trade catalogues quoted in this survey can be found in the collection of the author.

Jacob Simon
April 2013

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