Sydney Decimus Kitson was the tenth child of the celebrated Leeds Locomotive engineer James Kitson. During an active life he contributed both practically and financially to an impressive number of public institutions and private organisations. His special loves were art, architecture and antiquarianism, but he is chiefly remembered for his devotion to the work of nineteenth century watercolour artist John Sell Cotman (1782-1842).
Sydney's parents were James I Kitson (1807-1885) and Elizabeth, née Hutchinson (1833-1913), a Nottinghamshire vicar's daughter and James' second wife. James was a self-made man from Hunslet, Leeds. The company started in 1835 at the Airedale Foundry, off Pearson Street, Hunslet, with Charles Todd as a partner. Initially, the firm made parts for other builders, until it was joined in 1838 by David Laird, a wealthy farmer who was looking for investments, and the company became Todd, Kitson and Laird. That year saw the production of the company's first complete locomotives for the North Midland and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. However, Todd left almost immediately to form Shepherd and Todd, and the company was known variously as Kitson and Laird or Laird and Kitson.
James, formerly of Hyde House, Clarendon Road, Leeds, bought Elmet Hall in Roundhay from the Nicholson family for £17,000 in 1865. It was here that Sydney was born on 26th June 1871. Sydney was of the same generation as his nephews, Edwin Kitson Clark (1866-1941) and Robert Hawthorn Kitson (1873-1947), with whose families and artistic interests those of his own were closely interlinked.
Robert's father was a director of Kitson & Co. until his premature death in 1899 and Edwin was the managing director until the firm was taken into receivership in 1934. The presiding entrepreneur throughout the firm’s heyday was Sydney's eldest brother, James l l Kitson (1835-1911). James Kitson was a Liberal Party politician. He was knighted as first Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1887 and was MP for Colne Valley from 1892-1907, when he was created the first Lord Airedale. He was elevated to the peerage in 1907. He was a prominent Unitarian in Leeds.
Sydney completed his education at Charterhouse and then at Cambridge where he entered Trinity College in 1889 and obtained his baccalaureate in 1892 and his Masters in 1896. Unlike most of the male Kitsons, Sydney did not join the family firm, choosing to qualify and practise as an architect instead. Robert, whose family had succeeded to Elmet Hall on James l's death, followed reading Natural Sciences. Like Sydney, he too rejected the family firm in favour of becoming an artist. At Cambridge, Sydney formed many of the friendships that sustained his active social and professional life in later years: the Trevelyans, the Runcimans, F. B. Malim BA, MA (1907-1911) later headmaster of Haileybury, and Henry Martineau Fletcher (1870-1953).
Sydney served his articles with the London based architect Edward John May (1853–1941), a student of Norman Shaw who designed much of Bedford Park, the West London garden suburb at Turnham Green. He commenced independent practice in Leeds in 1897.
In 1896, Kitson and Henry Martineau Fletcher (1870-1953) a fellow architect and friend, embarked on an architectural sketching and study tour of the Veneto, the Dalmatian coast and Greece. Sydney gained experience of ecclesiastical architecture in the busy architectural practice of William Douglas Caröe (1857-1938) a major figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement, before returning to Leeds where he entered into partnership with architect Francis W. Bedford (1866-1904) from 1897 until Bedford left for London in 1904. Bedford was like Kitson the son of a successful Leeds manufacturer, in this case of chemicals and dyestuff. He was the star of his year, winner of the Royal lnstitute of British Architects (RIBA) Ashpitel prize in 1890 and the Owen Jones studentship in 1891. He had been articled in Leeds to W. H. Thorp, the architect of the Leeds Art Gallery (1886-88), who was for many years an active member of the Leeds Fine Arts Club and the Art Gallery sub-committee of the City Council. The work of Bedford and Kitson was regularly reviewed and illustrated in the architectural press from 1893 and, except for some offices in the centre of Leeds; most of the buildings survive with at least their external features intact.
Sydney lived at Hillside, Gledhow Lane, Leeds, from 1901-1915. On 21st February 1903, aged 31, Sydney married Margaret Winifred Tetley (1879-1932) of the Tetley brewing family, at St. Michael’s Church in Headingley, Leeds. Following the marriage, and the birth of their two daughters, Elisabeth and Barbara, in 1905 and 1907, he began alterations of Hillside making one room of the whole front of the ground floor and building on a modern dining room and nursery.
By 1914, Sydney had a successful architectural practice and a new partner James Parish. Sydney was elected a fellow of RIBA in 1906 and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1907. He was President of the West Yorkshire Society of Architects from 1910-1912 and during this time, served on the RIBA council. In 1911 Sydney was co-opted onto the Art Gallery sub-committee of Leeds City Council from which he only resigned due to ill health in 1934. Sydney’s service in the Great War from 1914-19 was with the Yorkshire Hussars, rising from Captain in 1914 to Major in 1919.
Robert Kitson was an annual exhibitor with the Leeds Fine Arts Club, an association of gifted amateur artists, from 1898. Ina Kitson-Clark, his cousin Edwin's wife, was an executive committee member for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition from 1903. Robert was co-opted onto the Art Gallery sub-committee in 1904 and served until 1945. From 1922, his sister, Beatrice Jesse Kitson (1877-1975), kept their home in Leeds at Stonegates above Stainbeck (now Gledhow Grange). The Arts and Crafts exhibitions, in which the Kitsons were actively involved, were jointly arranged with Alfred Orage's (1873-1934) Leeds Art Club, a much more radical and philosophical association than those normally patronised by the Kitsons.
Robert had a passion for English watercolours and through sketching with Sir Alfred East and Brangwyn and later Philip Wilson Steer and Sir George Clausen, he became an accomplished painter. With his close friend, CeciI A. Hunt (1873-1965) he went sketching almost every year in ltaly, Sicily, Southern France and to North Africa, where he wintered in Kairouan and Luxor. Both were elected to the Royal Society of British Artists and exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Fine Art Society, and the Redfern Gallery. Hunt was Vice-President of The Royal Water-Colour Society from 1930-1933.
James Reeve was one of the first to recognise the importance of John Sell Cotman's watercolours and his efforts to establish Cotman as a major artist were endorsed by the British Museum who purchased a substantial part of his collection which Laurence Binyon assessed in 1897. Post-war interest in the artist was rekindled in a comprehensive exhibition of work by the Cotman family at the Tate Gallery in 1922 with a linked display in the British Museum Print Room. In that year Leeds Art Gallery bought its first work by Cotman, a watercolour of ‘Pont Aber Glaslyn’. The second, ‘A Coal Shaft at Coalbrookdale’ then called 'The Brick Kilns', was presented by Sir Michael Sadler on leaving the position of Director at Leeds Art Gallery for Oxford in 1923, and in the same year a third water-colour,’ A Ploughed Field’, was purchased.
Solomon Kaines-Smith, who was appointed Director of the Leeds Art Gallery in 1924, was another enthusiastic admirer of English watercolours. It was Kaines-Smith who instituted a policy of forming a ‘fine watercolour collection' and recruited Robert Kitson to help relaunch the Leeds Art Collections Fund. The sub-committee also authorised Robert to buy from the Bilborough Bequest in 1924 and 1925 and he and Cecil Hunt selected works to be sent up on approval from Barbizon House and the Beaux Art Galleries in London. In 1926 Kaines-Smith published a small book on Cotman in which the artist's oil paintings were positively re-evaluated. Another influential, publication was collector Paul Oppé's contribution to the ‘Studio’ magazine special edition in 1923 which was devoted to John Sell Cotman.
Sydney’s architectural practice flourished with new partners, W. A. Ledgard and later N. R. Pyman, joining the firm. After Sydney was invited to modernise and refit Goldsborough Hall near Knaresborough for Princess Mary and Viscount Lascelles in 1922-1923, he opened a second office in London. The main office remained in Leeds where it continues today as Kitson and Partners in Vicar Lane. Although he continued to accept commissions, such as the War Memorial at the Shireoak outside St. Michael's, Headingley of which his father-in-law, C. F. Tetley, was church warden, most of them were personal favours for friends and relatives, and his own architectural work petered out when he suffered the first of several severe haemorrhages, resulting from tuberculosis, in 1923. He was taken to the sanatorium at Mundesley Bay in North Norfolk where Robert Kitson began the first of his annual visits to visit Sydney and drive around with him, enjoying and sketching the architecture and the landscape, visiting friends and viewing private collections of English watercolours.
John Sell Cotman's work no doubt appealed to Sydney Kitson, as it cut across so many of his own interests and activities. Cotman's most acclaimed early watercolours had been painted on visits to North Yorkshire, to which county Sydney was devoted. From 1919-20 he was the President of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society and, with Edwin Kitson Clark, supported the gift of its Museum to the City. He wrote a much reprinted guide book to Temple Newsam in 1927 and was active in the Thoresby Society. For many years he sat on the Council of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, designed its bookcases in 1925, and presented a collection of 157 meticulously measured plans of Yorkshire Churches, emblazoned with relevant heraldry by his daughter Elisabeth. Cotman, in a different way, had recorded the antiquities of Norfolk for patron and friend Dawson Turner.
By 1923, ill health had forced Sydney to give up his practice and he retired to Thornbury House on the edge of Kidlington near Oxford. It was here that he amassed a collection of Cotman’s work, a quest which took him through the many public and private collections of English watercolours to locate and transcribe letters, or copy and often buy drawings. Thornbury house accommodated many fellow Cotmaniacs and Sydney's expanding collection together with his research material and his notes, many of which were contained within the 12 ‘Cotmania’ volumes that Sydney kept from 1926. He utilized this collection to write his biography, 'The Life of John Sell Cotman’ which was published by Faber and Faber in 1937.
What may have contributed to Sydney becoming a major collector of Cotman's work, as it certainly did Robert who bought 50, was the sale of the Canadian part of the Bulwer Collection at Walker's Gallery in New Bond Street in 1926. Both Sydney and Robert Kitson supported the development of the Leeds City Art Gallery's watercolour collection, giving advice on purchases, lending from their own collections, presenting works and encouraging others to do the same. After the death of Lady Sadler (1852-1931), Sir Michael invited Sydney to select three watercolours by Constable, Cotman and Wilson Steer for presentation to Leeds in her memory. C. F. Bell had already selected Cotman's’ House end - a ruin’ for the Ashmolean, so he picked the ‘Refectory of Walsingham Priory’ and two works by Steer.
Despite his illness, Sydney Kitson was remarkably active and sustained by his daughters, Elizabeth and Barbara, especially after the sudden death of his wife Margaret, in February 1932. Throughout much of his quest for Cotman, he also served as the Honorary Secretary of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) from 1928 with two annual extensions until 1934 when illness forced him to relinquish such duties in London and Leeds although he continued his task of sorting out the collections deposited in the RIBA library.
The last years of Sydney Kitson's life were primarily devoted to completing his biography of Cotman, 'The Life of John Sell Cotman,' a massive task and a remarkable achievement owing much to its specific attention to the many works themselves, to documentary evidence from the time of their execution, and to the identification of Cotman's subject matter. The biography was published by Faber and Faber in February 1937. After a final holiday in Blakeney, a coastal village in Norfolk, Sydney died on 1 July 1937.
The task of distributing the bulk of Sydney Kitson's collection on his death fell to Sir Henry Mendelssohn Hake CBE FSA FRHistS (1892-1951), Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Lengthy negotiations took place as Hake worked to identify and allocate over 1,000 works of art by Cotman and others, attempting to honour the wish of Kitson to make his native Leeds the main beneficiary. In the end the disposal of the Kitson collection was kept almost entirely within the five institutions named in his will, namely: Leeds Art Gallery, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Robert Kitson actively supported Leeds's claim to receive Sydney's collection, which had been clearly intimated to his daughters by their father. Over the autumn and early winter of 1937-38 Robert was in regular correspondence with Leeds Art Gallery Director, Philip Hendy.