Etching on Paper of Kirkstall Abbey, with cows drinking water from the lake at the front.
Etching on Paper of Kirkstall Abbey, with cows drinking water from the lake at the front.

‘Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire’ John Sell Cotman c. 1811

Project Archivist Jane Speller explores ‘Re-thinking John Sell Cotman’, the major project currently taking place at Leeds Art Gallery.

Funded by the Esmée Fairburn Foundation, the project aims to introduce new audiences to the Leeds collection of John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) watercolours and drawings, as seen through the lens of the Kitson Archive. The project will culminate with an exhibition in the newly refurbished Leeds Art Gallery which opens to the public in October 2017.

Sydney Decimus Kitson (1871-1937) was the tenth child of Leeds industrialist James Kitson, whose locomotive engineering business was based in Hunslet. Unlike the other Kitson men who followed into the family business, Sydney trained as an architect and eventually ran a successful practice in Leeds. Many of the fine buildings designed by Sydney still remain, such as the Leeds College of Art (1902), and Sydney’s own home, ‘Hillside’ in Gledhow Lane.

In addition to architecture, Kitson’s other great passion was collecting watercolours by English Romantic artists. John Sell Cotman was Kitson’s main interest and over the course of his life, Kitson collected more than a thousand works by Cotman and his children, Miles Edmund (1810-58), Ann (1812-1862) and John Joseph (1814-78). Kitson also wrote what is still considered to be the definitive biography of Cotman: ‘Life of John Sell Cotman’ (Faber & Faber, 1937). Kitson’s collecting and writing activities over an intensive ten year period between 1926 and 1937 are detailed in the archive, primarily through a series of 12 bound diaries entitled ‘Cotmania’.

As a Project Archivist, I joined the ‘Re-thinking John Sell Cotman’ project team in late October 2016. I have been working with Theodore Wilkins, Assistant Curator of Fine Art, to develop the Leeds Art Gallery museum catalogue (as part of the project website) to make it suitable for cataloguing the Kitson archive. Freelance Photographer, Norman Taylor, helped us to digitise a large number of items from the Kitson archive, giving most online catalogue entries (and in the case of the ‘Cotmania’ volumes, every page) an individual image.

Jane Speller and Norman Taylor photographing items from the Kitson archive, in what looks like a studio.

Digitising the Kitson Archive

In December 2016, a team of ten project volunteers was recruited. A room within the Art Gallery was converted to accommodate the volunteers, and equipment was purchased: laptops, magnifying glasses, book supports and other handling aids. Volunteers were given training in understanding and handling archives by the Project Archivist; David Hill, the academic attached to the project, then gave the team an introduction to Cotman and Kitson. Each volunteer was assigned one of the 12 ‘Cotmania’ volumes – a key part of the archive – to transcribe. Following in Kitson’s footsteps as he follows in Cotman’s has given us a fascinating glimpse into two lives, a hundred years apart. We envisage that in addition to academic researchers, the data produced by this project will be of interest to genealogists and local historians.

An open book, with the Cotman family tree spread over two pages. The book is very old.

Cotman Family Tree, ‘Cotmania’ Volume

So far an amazing 600 transcribing hours have been clocked up, amounting to hundreds of individual pages of transcriptions. The online catalogue means that transcribing work is possible from home and several of the volunteers have been doing this in addition to the work they do in the gallery.

Last week, Leeds based artist Hondartza Fraga joined the project. Hondartza, who works primarily with drawing and video, has been commissioned to produce work in response to the Kitson archive and the Cotman collection. The resulting work can be experienced as part of the ‘Re-thinking John Sell Cotman’ exhibition in October 2017. Watch this space as plans take shape for what promises to be an amazing exhibition!

By Jane Speller, Project Archivist.

Visit the Leeds Art Gallery webpage to find out about our current exhibitions and collections on display.