Monday, October 15, 2012

Gimme a Break


Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt
Richard Lumley, 2nd Earl of Scarbrough (1717)
oil on canvas
36 X 28 in.


In the 1690s, London bookseller Jacob Tonson realized that if he were to compete against other companies in the publishing field, then he would need to be the first to discover the next new prospect to bring to print.  His idea was simple:  if he were to form a camaraderie with the talented young writers of the day, he could put himself into the position having first option on his friends' literary efforts.  So Tonson invited these aspiring authors to gather with him at a tavern owned by Christopher "Kit" Cat, where the young men were treated to the establishment's famous mutton-pies.  In time, the group grew, attracting not only writers, but also artists and politicians, the latter eventually forming the majority of the group's membership.  Tonson's associates, whether or not they provided the publisher with the next great manuscript, certainly made their marks on British history, with many members becoming part of the Whig-dominated Parliament under George the First.

One member of Tonson's group was the artist Sir Godfrey Kneller (nĂ© Gottfried Kniller), who had been appointed Principal Painter to the Crown by Charles II in 1680.  Kneller agreed to paint the likenesses of his fellow associates, completing more than 40 member portraits between 1703 and 1720.  These works, meant to be displayed in a special room at Tonson's nephew's house at Barn Elms, London, had to be of uniform and modest size to fit their display space.  The portraits, which were all done to formula - 3/4* length on a canvas measuring 36 inches by 28 inches - became known as Kit-cats, taking their name from their club, which in turn had adopted its name from the pie-maker at the tavern where the group once gathered.  To this day, 3/4 portraits are still called "Kit-cats," in reference to Kneller's contribution to the club.  Unfortunately, because of their same size, format, and framing, Kit-cats were monotonous when viewed as a group, and eventually this monotony led critics to dismiss these works as being mediocre.  

Many of them are now on view at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and can be viewed online here.


* I would argue that the portraits are not 3/4 length, but half-length, and included the caveat that each painting included only one of the sitter's hands.  I would also argue that the uniformity of size of the paintings had as much to do with an attempt not to upset the egos of the members as it was to accommodate the constraints of the gallery space.


Joseph Addison (c. 1703-1712)
oil on canvas
36 X 28 in.


William Pulteney, 1 st Earl of Bath (1717)
oil on canvas
36 X 28 in.


Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (c. 1710-1715)
oil on canvas
36 X 28 in.


Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston (1709)
oil on canvas
36 X 28 in.


Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset (c. 1703)
oil on canvas
36 X 28 in.




3 comments:

Kate Stone said...

Six men, two wigs.

Sonya Johnson said...

What I personally find to be the stand-out feature of these portraits is the clothing - wow. Exquisitely done in all cases.

Not a criticism, but an observation: the subjects for the portraits look almost like the same person, albeit well-painted. This is not at all helped by those horrific wigs they are wearing :/.

veeru said...

Wow... Great Post About Art Paintings.Thanks for the post, i will look forward to see more posts from your blog.