It’s getting to that time of year when we all want to get outside and soak up the sun! To satisfy those holiday travel cravings, let Gallery Assistant Cat take you on an exploration of the University Art Collection’s archive of Robert Hawthorn Kitson’s watercolour sketches: 

Special Collections holds a plethora of Kitson’s watercolours, many of which depict his travels around the world. He expertly uses colour, contrast, and balances thick fluid strokes with fine precise lines to set the scene in his paintings.

Watercolour of rooftops
Robert Hawthorn Kitson,’Hilltop houses, Mentone, France’ (n.d) Image credit: University of Leeds.
Watercolour of buildings and boats at night
Robert Hawthorn Kitson, ’Rialto Vaporetto Stacione at night’ (n.d) Image credit: University of Leeds.

Some sketches are more detailed and precise, like ‘Metone’ and ‘Rialto Vaporetto Stacione’, which use high contrast and dark shadows to outline figures and buildings. The bright, warm oranges of the buildings in Metone capture the fierce sunlight on the scene, contrasting with the rich, dark blues and greens of the trees and mountains behind. The night scene of the Rialto is focused on the hubbub of the market and restaurants, with bright lights, crowded figures, and billows of cooking smoke drawing the eye to the lively gathering. The cool blue tones of the night are emphasised by brightly lit yellow windows and their reflections on the water. 

Watercolour of waterfront in pink
Robert Hawthorn Kitson, ‘Amalfi, pink light’ (n.d) Image credit: University of Leeds.
Watercolour of waterfront in purple
Robert Hawthorn Kitson, ‘Amalfi, mauve light’ (n.d) Image credit: University of Leeds.

Other watercolours, like these two views of Amalfi, are more fluid and expressive, capturing the tranquil essence of the scene. These gestural paintings have blurred edges and looser brushstrokes, which emulate the dreamlike setting and soft lighting. The mauve painting is much darker overall, with stronger shadows in the cliffs and buildings and cool purple overtones. The pink painting is far brighter, with warm tones on the cliffs, orange lights reflected in the water, and rosy-pink skies. The two paintings show how the use of colour, tone, and contrast can change the entire mood of a setting. 

Whilst Kitson’s paintings are gorgeous, his reasons for travelling are less so. After experiencing illness and homophobia in England he moved to sunny Sicily for a better life. 

Watercolour of sitting room interior
Robert Hawthorn Kitson, ‘Sitting room or study, Stonegates, Meanwood, Leeds’ (n.d.) Image credit: University of Leeds.
Watercolour of rural landscape with fields and barn
Robert Hawthorn Kitson, ‘Meanwood Farm, Leeds, from Stonegates’ (n.d.) Image credit: University of Leeds.

Born into a wealthy Yorkshire family, Robert Hawthorn Kitson (1873-1947) spent most of his childhood in Cardigan House on Cardigan Road, Leeds. His grandfather James Kitson founded a very successful locomotive engineering firm in Hunslet, and in the early 1940s his sister Jessie Kitson was the first female Lord Mayor of Leeds.  

Kitson studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge but, after being advised to visit sunnier climates in the winter due to his rheumatic fever, he practiced watercolour painting on sketching tours with Sir Alfred East and Sir Frank Brangwyn. After discovering his joy of painting, Kitson became an active member of the Leeds Fine Arts Club in 1900.  

Kitson knew he was gay from a young age, and decided to leave England for good in 1899 to escape homophobic laws and persecution. In particular, the 1855 Labouchere Amendment criminalised ‘gross indecency’, which in practice was used to freely prosecute male homosexuals. Both Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were convicted under the amendment, with Wilde sentenced to two years hard labour and Turing sentenced to chemical castration by oestrogen injections as an alternative to prison. Kitson moved to Taormina, Sicily, where he was able to live relatively freely, if not openly, surrounded by a community of artists and aristocrats. 

Watercolour of people outside buildings
Robert Hawthorn Kitson, ’Good Friday Procession, Taormina’ (n.d.) Image credit: University of Leeds. 
Watercolour of coastline
Robert Hawthorn Kitson, ’Capo S. Alessio from Villa S.Giorgo, Taormina’ (n.d.) Image credit: University of Leeds.

Before settling in Taormina, Kitson travelled Europe extensively by train, creating gorgeous watercolour sketches on his way. He also took long voyages to North Africa, Egypt, Istanbul and, once, to Sri Lanka and India. Kitson settled in Taormina for many reasons; one being that it was on the rise as a popular winter resort for European aristocracy, another being his long-term lover, Carlo Siligato.  

Kitson was known in Taormina as the ‘crazy Englishman’ for his flamboyant appearance. He wore colourful jackets, and was tall and thin with blue eyes and a moustache. He lived at Casa Cuseni, a villa he designed and built, until he was forced to come back to England when World War II turned Sicily into a battleground. He returned after the war to help rebuild the town, and later died at Casa Cuseni in 1947. 

Casa Cuseni has been declared an Italian National Monument and now hosts a museum of fine art and a small hotel. It also holds the most important collection of Kitson’s watercolours. 

Watercolour of orange building with plants
Robert Hawthorn Kitson, ‘Corte della Fontana, Casa Cuseni’ (n.d.) Image credit: University of Leeds.

We hope Kitson’s beautiful paintings have got you excited for your holidays, whether you are away travelling somewhere exciting or enjoying the sunshine in your back garden! If you are in Leeds, be sure to pop into The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery and Treasures of the Brotherton to enjoy our displays (and our lovely air conditioning). 

Journey along with Kitson around the world by browsing the full collection of his watercolours on our online catalogue.