The Kitsons and the arts : a Leeding family in Sicily and the West Riding
Fashionable though it has become to bewail the demise of Gradgrinds in the 19th Century economy, the creation of a civilised urban style of life in industrial Britain was an equally remarkable achievement. In Leeds, the Kitsons were one of the families capable, by the turn of the century, of supplying educated entrepreneurs for the professions and cultural activities as well as local business. The architectural practice of F.W. Bedford and S.D. Kitson was notable for the domestic work and decorative design of the partners, who won commissions for a variety of significant public buildings as well as the commercial and licenced victualling work that became mainstays after the Great War. Sydney Kitson, then convalescing with T.B., became sparked with an interest in the life and works of John Sell Cotman. He researched and amassed a vast study collection of his drawings and watercolours which culminated in the publication of what is still the definitive biography of the artist just before his own death in 1937. Robert Kitson, like his friend Cecil Hunt, became an artist, learning the craft of watercolour painting on sketching tours with Sir Alfred East and Sir Frank Brangwyn. He regularly exhibited his work at the R.B.A. and had one-man exhibitions at the Fine Art Society and the Red/ern Gallery. He was, from 1900, an active member of the Leeds Fine Arts Club, in which Ina Kitson Clark, the wife of the Kitson locomotive company's managing director, played a leading role for half a century with Ethel Mallinson. The involvement of ladies like these, including Beatrice Kitson who become the first female Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1942-3, in the social and cultural activities of the city was extensive as well as pioneering and if need be, formidable. After his father's death R.H. Kitson made his home in Sicily where he designed and built a spacious villa with spectacular views of Mount Etna from its many terraces. Brangwyn designed the entire dining room and some other furniture, which was only part of the wide variety of work he undertook for Kitson between 1903 and 1916. This included oil paintings and watercolours, presentation jewellery and caskets, and the Verge for the new University of Leeds. But the decorative commission of the mosaics for the Life of St. Aidan was one of the supreme artistic achievements of the era in Britain. Although Taormina remained his base, Robert Kitson travelled widely, sketching all the time. In Leeds he, Sydney and Edwin Kitson Clark were co-opted members of the Art Gallery and Museum sub-committees. They did much to realise the policy of establishing a collection with a historic series of British watercolours and Robert regularly lent and presented contemporary prints and drawings. In his own work, as in his collecting, he was appreciative of what was new in the more traditional developments in art. But, although he came to admire the work of Sickert, John Nash and 1.0. Innes, he did not follow Sir Michael Sadler and Frank Rutter in their enthusiasm for expressionist art and what is termed Modernism. All of them united in encouraging the discussion and display of arts and crafts as well as the formation of the Leeds Arts Collection Fund for the public gallery. Through their own architectural and artistic creativity, their scholarship and patronage of other artists, their substantial presentations to the collections of the City Art Gallery, and their active support for local organisations, this generation of ~tsons demonstrated a resourceful and single-minded devotion to the city, to the development of whose economy they acknowledged their position. They were enthusiastic cultural entrepreneurs. Following the main text, there is a series of Appendices cataloguing the works of the Bedford and Kitson practice until about 1922. and a summary of the contentsof R.H.K.'s Sketchbooks and S.O.K.'s Cotmania Journals. Although not attempting a catalogue raisonee, the illustrations of the architectural practice. the Brangwyn commissions. creating Casa Cuseni, and the art of Robert Kitson, are intended to provide the only extensive visual record of a corpus of work that has remained largely unattended for almost half a century since Robert Kitsons's death in 1947 and that of Sydney Kitson a decade earlier.