‘Three-quarters, kit-cats and half-lengths’: British portrait painters and their canvas sizes, 1625-1850
3. Further standard sizes
There were further refinements in the range of accepted standard canvas sizes. These included the introduction of the Bishop’s half-length in the 1770s and an extra large whole-length canvas, sometimes called a Bishop’s whole-length or King size, in the early 19th century. The varied use of the head format and the range of sizes for landscapes are also considered here.
Fig.11 Bishop’s half-length format.
Samuel Lane’s George Murray, Bishop of Rochester, c.1849, a bishop’s half-length canvas, 56 x 44 3/8 ins (142.3 x 112.7 cm), showing his billowing sleeves (National Portrait Gallery).
3.1 The Bishop’s half-length
By the 1770s another refinement in the range of standard canvas sizes had been formalised, the large half-length, size 56 by 44 or 45 ins (142.3 by about 112 cm). It is described as a ‘Bishops half-length’ in the The Artist’s Repository in 1785 and in subsequent literature. The story is that this larger size allowed the voluminous lawn sleeves favoured by Hanoverian bishops to be portrayed to advantage. In reality relatively few bishops’ portraits are found in this format. An early example of the type is Sir Joshua Reynolds’s standing portrait, William Markham, Archbishop of York, painted in 1777 (Christ Church, Oxford). Rather more typical is Samuel Lane’s later portrait of George Murray, Bishop of Rochester (fig.11) where the sleeves billow out to fill the larger canvas.
The format, however, was not restricted to bishops’ portraits, or indeed to portraits: James Northcote charged 100 guineas in 1789 for ‘a picture size on a Bishops half length of the landing of King William the 3rd’ while Sir William Beechey received 80 guineas from Lady Hood in 1807 for ‘a Bishop’s half-length of Sir Saml. [Hood] painted for Earl St. Vincent’. Samuel Drummond’s printed terms of 1811 lists a ‘Bishop Half Length’ at 40 guineas (fig.12).
3.2 The Bishop’s whole-length or King size
‘A large full length is 8ft by 5ft’ noted Joseph Wright of Derby in his account book, and such a size, 96 x 60 ins (244 x 152.5 cm), or larger still, became increasingly common for the grandest portraits in the reign of George III. In the 1760s Allan Ramsay was using a size of this kind for some of his royal portraits which he described to Lord Bute as ‘3 inches higher and 5 broader than the ordinary size of whole lengths’, and so probably 97 x 63 ins. Sir Thomas Lawrence used a canvas of 100 x 60 ins for his ‘Largest size, whole length’, a size for which he was quoting 700 guineas in 1829, 100 guineas more than his standard whole-length. Lawrence introduced a larger size still of 106 x 70 ins (269.4 x 178 cm), what Constable called ‘very large King size’ in 1825, for his series of portraits of European leaders for the Waterloo Chamber and for a few other portraits intended for particularly grand destinations (fig.13). In the sheer size of his more ambitious single figure canvases, Lawrence reached an extreme rarely surpassed in Britain. A little later, in or about the 1830s, the artists’ colourmen, Roberson & Miller, advertised this size, 106 x 70 ins, as a ‘Bishop’s Whole-length’, on the analogy of a Bishop’s half-length, and other colourmen did the same, including Lechertier Barbe in 1851. The description was used by the portrait painter, John Lucas, in his list of terms in 1843.
Fig.12 Samuel Drummond’s sizes.
Drummond’s printed list of terms for 1811, including an additional whole-length size of 72 x 50 ins (photograph in National Portrait Gallery Archive).
3.3 The head
There were of course head portraits of varying size from very early on in the history of portraiture, but perhaps in Britain the format was used most often for sketches, portraits of friends and of children, rather than for the great run of commissioned work. The 'head' did not really become a standard format canvas, as opposed to a description of a type of portrait, until the early 19th century, when it was formalised at 24 x 20 ins (61 x 51 cm). But other head sizes can be found. Confusingly, some artists, including Joshua Reynolds, sometimes described the larger three-quarters format, size 30x 25 ins, as a head.
Mary Beale made some use of a canvas of size about 25 x 21 ins, perhaps that referred to in Charles Beale’s 1677 notebook as ‘the least size but one’. An unusual 18th-century example is attributed to Isaac Seeman, John Boyle, 5th Earl of Cork, c.1735-45 (National Portrait Gallery). Size 24 3/4 x 20 ins, it has selvedges at top and bottom and was taken from a canvas roll of about 26 ¼ ins. Eighteenth-century pastel artists such as Arthur Pond, William Hoare, Francis Cotes and John Russell frequently did pastels to a size of about 24 x 18 ins but these are of course works on paper and their size was influenced by other considerations such as the ready availability of large enough sheets of protective glass. So it is more helpful to look at artists such as Reynolds, who listed a ‘Teller de testa’ in 1764 and a ‘Tela de testa’ in 1766, using the Italian term, quoting 24 ½ x 18 ½ ins as the size.
G.F. Watts’s Julia Margaret Cameron, 1850-2, 24 x 20 ins (61 x 50.8 cm) (National Portrait Gallery).
Both Samuel Drummond in 1811 (see fig.12) and Charles Hayter in 1815, the latter relying on the colourman, Thomas Brown, distinguished between a head at 24 x 20 ins and a three-quarters at 30 x 25 ins. That there were even smaller sizes in use is indicated by Hayter’s inclusion of two small formats, 21 x 17 ins and 17 ½ x 14 ins. It was the 24 x 20 ins size for head portraits that became a feature of 19th-century artists’ colourmen’s catalogues. It was advertised as a standard size in Roberson & Miller’s list of c.1828-40 and in Frederick Oughton’s Note Book on Oil Colour Technique in 1892 it was the only head size given. It was used by G.F. Watts (fig.14). In the portrait painter, John Collier’s ‘Register of Painting’ from 1886 onwards this was his favoured head size.
3.4 Landscape formats
Although British standard sizes evolved with portraiture in mind, the formats were often adopted for other genres (fig.15). Hogarth used the kit-cat size for his Marriage à la Mode series, as already noted in section 2.3, while Joseph Wright of Derby used portrait terminology to record the size of some of his landscapes: ‘A 3qrs picture of Matlock high Tor by moonlight’ features in his account book in about 1780 and is followed by other such descriptions including ‘A view of the ponte Salario half length’. Thomas Jones in 1776 records painting ‘A Pastoral on a Kitcat Cloth’ and other landscapes on ‘3 quarter cloths’, while James Northcote describes ‘a picture size on a Bishops half length of the landing of King William 3rd’. John Constable contemplated painting a picture of Jaques size ‘about kitt catt’. As Charles Hayter commented in 1816, ‘Landscapes have no settled dimensions, but are often painted on the “given sizes”, placing them on their sides instead of upright, as for portraits; thus, on asking the size of a landscape, a painter would answer, “It is a whole length size, landscape way…”’.
The lack of a special range of landscape sizes meant that landscape painters in Britain either had to make do with standard portrait sizes, so giving their pictures a rather square format, or else had to have their canvases cut to their own specification. It is interesting to note that many of Gainsborough’s later landscapes are on canvases of about 58 x 47 ins or 47 x 58 ins, that is half the whole-length size of 94 x 58 ins. John Constable included ‘Half-length size, namely: 4ft. 2in. by 3ft. 4in.’ in his list of landscape prices in 1826, and later told his friend, C.R. Leslie, ‘I contemplate a half length for my Sercophagi’, when beginning his Cenotaph to Reynolds’ Memory (National Gallery). But his price list did not feature other fixed portrait sizes. There is evidence that on occasion he would cut up a kit-cat canvas of 36 x 28 ins for his landscapes to produce four smaller canvases of about 14 x 18 ins.
John Boultbee’s Robert Bakewell, c.1788-90, 27 3/4 x 35 3/4 in (70.5 x 91 cm), kit-cat size turned on its side (National Portrait Gallery).
J.M.W. Turner had most of his canvases cut to specification so that, for example, he wrote ahead to Charles Eastlake in Rome while he was still in Paris on his 1828 tour of the Continent, requesting: ‘… the best of all possible grounds and canvass size 8 feet 2½ by 4 feet 11¼ Inches to be if possible ready for me...’. In England in the 1800s and 1810s, a fair number of his canvases were size 36 x 48 ins or 24 x 36 ins (3 x 4 ft or 2 x 3 ft). Turner continued to use 36 x 48 ins canvases, for example for his Fighting Temeraire, exh. 1839, and Rain, Steam and Speed, exh. 1844 (both National Gallery, London) and it has been suggested that the leading London colourman, Thomas Brown, may have made the size at Turner's request and then stocked it more widely.
With the increase in demand for landscapes and genre paintings in the 19th century, colourmen began to offer ready prepared landscape format canvases, in London as in Paris. Winsor & Newton advertised seventeen stock landscape sizes from 6 x 9 ins to 24 x 36 ins in their catalogue of c.1857 while Reeves & Sons included nineteen such sizes in their 1881 catalogue. In his book on oil painting technique, published in 1892, Frederick Oughton listed five landscape sizes of 18 x 24 ins, 20 x 24 ins, 20 x 30 ins, 30 x 50 ins and 40 x 60 ins, although how far these sizes were used in practice would require further investigation. Landscape paintings were in any case subject to a less fixed range of sizes than portraits.
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