Kitson Archive volunteers, Karen and Linda.

On John Sell Cotman’s 235th birthday, volunteer Karen Mackie explores how Cotman’s work was obsessively researched by Sydney Kitson, who meticulously recorded his findings in a collection of journals known as ‘Cotmania’. 

As many of you will know, changes are happening inside Leeds Art Gallery, both to the building and its displays. A group of dedicated volunteers are currently working on a display of John Sell Cotman’s best watercolours – many of which were given by Leeds architect, Sydney Kitson – in time for the gallery’s grand re-opening in October 2017.

Kitson’s mania for Cotman became clear 80 years ago, when he revealed his final project: a book on Cotman, which took him over ten years to finish. The volunteers have just a few months to type up all of Kitson’s notes, so that they can be viewed by the public online when the gallery re-opens.

Working so closely with Kitson’s notes, you get a sense of the man behind them. The notebooks are beautiful, with lots of tiny drawings and exact details of the paintings he saw – plus quite a few blunt comments on their quality!

We are also uncovering exactly how Kitson researched Cotman. This page taken from his notes particularly appealed to me, with its letter and cartoon. The letter is from a Mrs M. Porter, and tells Kitson of some paintings her family sold:

The letter says that the paintings were sold to raise funds for the Red Cross during World War One. The most fascinating thing is how Mrs Porter came to have the paintings – for they had been found in a cupboard! Left by Mr Angell, the previous owner of the house, he never come back to claim them. Why have I never moved into a house like that?!

There are several mistakes Mrs Porter has crossed out in her letter – look at when she writes that Angell’s son gave everything to them. Did she feel some guilt about this? Their sale meant that they were used to help others, and the money made was used to look after wounded soldiers.

On reading this letter, Kitson went to look up more details at the Saleroom, where he found out who had bought the paintings and the price paid. Under these notes, is a cartoon of the sale day:

The Cartoon lists the people shown – Art collectors like Sir Jeremiah Colman are there, plus Laurence Binyon from the British Museum and painter Philip Wilson Steer. Then, interestingly, there are a few famous names I had not expected. James Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan and ‘Mr Conrad’ (almost certainly Joseph Conrad) who wrote Heart of Darkness, the novel that the film Apocalypse Now was based on.

There are many interesting stories behind the detail in the books. By making this all searchable on line others can easily access it. The term ‘Cotmania’ was first used by one of Cotman’s young pupils, Harriet Cholmeley of Brandsby Hall in North Yorkshire.

By Karen Mackie, Kitson Archive Volunteer.

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