THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Robert Hawthorn Kitson (1873-1947)
Artist, Patron, Exile
Robert Hawthorn Kitson provides an exotic link between dark, smoky Leeds where he was brought up, the brilliant Mediterranean landscape of Sicily where he created a fabulous house and garden and spent much of his life, and the colourful imagined world of the artist Frank Brangwyn who was his friend and colleague.
Robert Kitson was born into the wealthy and immensely successful Kitson engineering family. James Kitson, founder of the firm, was his grandfather, and James Kitson II, later Lord Airedale, his uncle. His father, John Hawthorn Kitson, like most of the men in the family, was one of the directors of the great locomotive works, whose engines were exported across the world. He and his wife Jessie lived initially close to town, in Hyde Terrace, but when Robert was four the family moved to leafy Headingley, to Cardigan House in Cardigan Road, a turreted mansion newly built over the grounds of the old Zoological and Botanical Gardens – the house is still there, its spacious shaded garden a reminder of the past. There they lived until 1886 when Robert’s father inherited Elmet Hall in Roundhay.
Robert’s parents were often away and he and his two sisters shared memories of brutal nannies, who even drugged him with opium to keep him quiet. But he grew into a strikingly handsome and talented young man, gaining a first in Natural Sciences at Cambridge. He followed the expected route into the firm, but his heart was not in it. He was a gifted amateur artist, and studied under several well-known artists – art was his passion. Plagued by poor health, he longed to escape Leeds for a warmer climate, and he felt stifled by the restrictions of English society, with its rabid homophobia.
A visit to Sicily opened up the entrancing prospect of another kind of life. He was stunned by the beauty of Taormina, and found there a community which would welcome him. When his father died in 1899 he inherited enough money to move there, and he began to build the house of his dreams, high on a rock above the town, set in a magical terraced garden. He called it Casa Cuseni, and filled it with precious objects. He asked his friend, the artist Frank Brangwyn, to paint a series of murals in the dining room and design all the furniture. Brangwyn began work in 1910 and created a fabulous room which people flocked to see and admire.
Meanwhile Robert did not forget Leeds: he commissioned Brangwyn to decorate the apse of the newly-built St Aidan’s church in Roundhay Road, Leeds, where Robert’s brother-in-law was vicar. Brangwyn began painting the central panel but became worried about the effects on paint of the dirty, smoky Leeds air. In 1913 he suggested using mosaic instead – durable, but expensive and highly skilled work. After long negotiations this was agreed and a London firm was found to execute the work to Brangwyn’s designs, using a team of specially recruited craftspeople. The mosaics were completed in 1916. Costs had soared but Robert Kitson had faith and went on funding the project. Thanks to his generosity these magnificent mosaics are part of the city’s heritage today. He also donated work by Brangwyn to the City Art Gallery and to the University.
Robert lived on in Casa Cuseni until he was forced to leave in World War II when Sicily became a battleground. Amazingly the house, with the Brangwyn dining room, survived occupation by three sets of troops. He returned as soon as he could in 1946 but died a year later in his beloved home. He left the house to his niece, who kept it going as an exclusive guesthouse, a haven for writers and artists. After her death it was sold, but is run now as a luxury B and B, its historic and artistic features preserved. .
Robert’s many sketchbooks and papers were returned to his native Leeds and are now in the University’s Brotherton Library Special Collections, his delicate watercolour sketches a reminder of that other sunlit world which so enchanted him.