4000 Miles, 400 Pictures, 1 Year and 1 Man With An Obsession

Volunteer Linda Bower explores Sydney Kitson’s obsession with collecting and documenting the work of artist John Sell Cotman, amidst preparations for an exciting exhibition for Leeds Art Gallery’s re-opening in October 2017.

How far would you travel to see a painting? How many weekends would you give up to track down every painting, drawing and etching by your favourite artist? When does a hobby become an obsession?

Sydney Decimus Kitson (1871-1937) was a man on a mission. After a successful career as an architect he spent the last years of his life researching the life of John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), the artist he most admired, and travelling the country in search of his works. He visited collections, galleries, auction houses and salesrooms, as well as the locations of some of his paintings. He wrote detailed journals for 11 years, full of information about where he’d travelled, who he’d met, what he’d found and illustrating the pages with copies of some of Cotman’s works. He stuck in newspaper articles, cut up sales catalogues and included letters he’d received from fellow enthusiasts.

But how did Kitson manage to clock up so many miles? From July 1927 to July 1928, according to his journal for that year, he visited Norwich 4 times, London 8 times, Manchester, Leeds, Gainsborough, Surrey, Sussex, Dorset and Great Yarmouth, made numerous trips to Oxford (he lived nearby) and a special journey to Wales to see Harlech castle and Tan-y-Bwlch bridge, which Cotman had painted. He only once in that journal mentions how he travelled (he ‘motored’) but we can probably assume he made all the journeys by car as he was quite a wealthy man, and covered nearly 4,000 miles – with no motorways!

So how many pictures did Kitson manage to find? In the 1927-28 journal he mentions over 400 Cotman drawings, paintings or etchings which he saw in exhibitions, galleries or private collections. Wherever possible he gives the title of the work, describes it a little and notes its exact measurements: one example is ‘6⅞ x 14⅜’, which begs the question – did he carry a tape measure with him? Kitson often gives a personal opinion too, which isn’t always complimentary!

Post it notes with dates and comments like "rather good" and "late, v. bad" that are Kitson's remarks on Cotman's work.
Some of Kitson’s (often brutal) remarks on Cotman’s works, posted in the volunteers’ workspace.

The journals contain so much detail, and yet there’s so much missing. The journal was obviously not intended as a record of life in the 1920s, nor an insight into Kitson himself. Nothing is included which doesn’t relate to his Cotman research. His wife Margaret Winifred (née Tetley) accompanies him sometimes and he notes that she bought him a gift for their silver wedding anniversary – but only because she, of course, bought him a Cotman. Kitson once mentions going to a chamber concert, but only because he happens to meet someone there who owned a Cotman.

He doesn’t tell us what else he saw or did on his travels, or mention any other interests. His focus, his all-consuming hobby and passion is John Sell Cotman. Little surprise, then, that he called his journals ‘Cotmania’…

By Linda Bower, Kitson Archive Volunteer.

Click here to read more about the Cotman Collection and the Kitson Volunteers’ research, and click here to apply to volunteer.

Leeds Art Gallery will re-open to the public in October 2017. Find out more here.

To read Kitson Archive Volunteer Karen’s post about Kitson’s Cotmania, click here. You can also read resident artist Hondartza Fraga’s blog post about working with the John Sell Cotman collection here.

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