It is often claimed that the twentieth century saw the death of ‘traditional’ portraiture in Britain. Supposedly, such portraiture was collaborative, functional and prescribed, whereas ‘modern’ portraiture was experimental and artist-led. While revisionist scholarship has challenged this binary by highlighting artists and artworks that are neither ‘traditional’ nor ‘modern’, there remains a gap in research into British portraiture 1900-1960 as a socially embedded practice. I address this gap by focusing on the portrait sitting: the interaction between artist, sitter and sometimes patron, from which portraits are produced. Textual accounts of sittings, which appear in sources including biographies and correspondence, give insight into these interactions. They show that participants used sittings to trade on each other’s status, exchange favours and repay debts.
To support systematic analysis of twentieth-century sittings, I develop a portrait-sitting ontology - a formal specification of the constitutive elements of sittings, and a portrait-sitting database - information about 60+ sittings, expressed using the ontology. I do so with reference to works in the National Portrait Gallery, since the gallery’s emphasis on noteworthy sitters is conducive to rich interpersonal exchanges during sittings. An approach from my portrait-sitting database shifts attention away from stylistic differences between portraits and towards shared social and cultural ideas that underpin particular types of portrait production. In doing so, it supports new groupings of portraits and new periodisations of portraiture. The database is also itself a theory of portraiture insofar as it visualises a network of portrait-sitting exchanges (rather than a linear progression of artists and styles).
Overall, my thesis enhances knowledge of British portraiture 1900-1960 as a socially embedded practice. In doing so, it demonstrates both the value of the portrait sitting as a research object for the socio-historical study of portraiture, and that of a specifically digital approach to the sitting as such.
For further information, please see:
Each portrait-sitting account is accompanied by a link to its source and, where appropriate, a page number. The data for each source includes, for example, the title, author(s), editor(s) and publication date.
To cite the database, please use the author 'Dawn Kanter', the title 'Portrait-Sitting Database', the date of the latest release (as given in the website footer), and the URL 'portrait-sitting.co.uk'.
The database was first published in February 2023. It will remain online until at least February 2028.