Kitching painted with purity and intelligence. He was a painter of the everyday that he knew, yet was outstanding in his ability to find grand subjects in this everyday, and to take from modern European art sufficient licence only for his own purpose, and to then keep his distance as if nobody’s slave. His natural talent was for decorative colour, and he understood well the urban life and geography of Yorkshire.
Sometimes his paintings are like a lesson in physical geography; you can see how transport gets about, how people place out their work, how the holiday makers exploit whatever they can, how the topography of the site becomes economical. At times they become illustrations of the extraordinary ballet of people and buildings and crowds, especially in his sequences of town drawings. I cannot imagine that there is a better record from this time of the total appearance of his places, which fixes the feeling of being there then, as seen by someone who knew them and was a reactive part of them. He never painted anything that was not true, and pursued much further than most the whole truth of his subject. Hence the purity, for he had no part in the metropolitan auction of originalities, no training to live down, no background to be ashamed of.
Arthur Kitching’s first one man exhibition was in July 1965 at the Manor House Art Gallery, Ilkley, when he was 53. He had begun his career already late aged 22 in 1934, and for about the following twenty years endured a self motivated and prolonged training. His best paintings were from the 1960’s and ’70s, the result of this consistent but slow improvement. Until he was 38 he lived in Sheffield, and followed a bizarre career alternating between an independent life as a painter and a dreary return to one or another office of various steel works. In 1950 he made a decisive break in moving to Essex, and from this time took jobs in local government that had to do with professional drawing or with art administration, which he continued after he returned north in 1958 to live in Ilkley.
It is not quite correct to say that he was self taught, since in 1934-5 he spent a year at Sheffield College of Art. This year was his only professional training, and his school work has nothing to do with his later painting; what he read on his own in books borrowed from the library was probably more important. It was however during this year that he made his unlikely vow to become an artist, so inspiring his will to teach himself to draw, starting his constant practice of life drawing. His surroundings were dedicatedly opposed to anything to do with art, whether in his family or his work or his daily contacts, and his unpublished autobiography, compiled recently from notes found in his studio, is an account of his lifting himself out of this deprivation.
He first learnt to draw, while his painting remained experimental. The two books of the 1950’s of drawings with texts, Pavements and People and Sea and Sand, are still naive, in that his strength of feeling overwhelms the beginnings of discipline in drawing. The scenes are crowded with energetic lines and shading, and he chose in fact to prolong a rather earlier phase of his drawing, decorative and insistently shallow spaced, so as to fix the close binding of figure and place. They were drawn from memory, not from direct sketches, and reveal a populace crippled by lack of confidence, maybe his own friends from Sheffield imagined at home or on holiday. Both the drawing and the writing show a two-faced reality, with ordinary people doing what they want and need, yet insecure and threatened, frightened guests in a world with an implicit malevolence.
His main subject was always people in landscape, along with portraits, but he found moving from drawing to painting difficult, in that the larger scale and the colour could not be organised with the intensity he wanted without an excessive fragmentation of the colour. The answer came from some watercolours of about 1950, small but of monumental design, which have a rhythm of touches of colour that easily parallels the outline of the figures. These imaginative works take on the subject that had earlier appealed to Léger and to William Roberts, the two greatest painters this century of citizens in the urban landscape. With his Continental Sunday, 1950, the figures are in a middle world of the imagination between reality and ideal, emblems of a class, designed with a confidence in their activities, yet so as to be almost capable of walking away to take the bus back home. This was painted in the year that Kitching left the North, and only shortly after his first visit abroad, to Paris in 1948 to look at the galleries. This group of watercolours, of course never exhibited, was a then inaudible statement of what he could do. They were a marker for the standard that he would be able to reach when painting in oil, so enlarging his subjects both in the literal sense of gallery size, and also of being able to incorporate within such a design the real people and landscape that he had known at home.
After his return to Yorkshire he was able to fill out his local compositions to a new scale. He then had a job in the Leeds Planning Department which may have encouraged him to analyse his private love of towns and how they worked: “all my life I have been a wanderer in cities. Always curious as to what was round the corner and how the city worked.”
He had moved into a huge house at Ilkley beside the River Wharfe, with a studio on the first floor with a real landscape to be seen through the window. He belonged to the Ilkley Art Club and knew its President C S Reddihough, who through his own collection lived in the kind of world where great art was an accepted ideal. From the early 1960’s Kitching arranged exhibitions for the Manor House Art Gallery, and taught a drawing class at Skipton. With this encouragement that came to him so late, he achieved the vernacular modernism of his last twenty years. Not however that this was a popular, (or any kind of) success at the time; the vernacular part put off the connoisseurs of modern art, and the modern part put off everybody else.
His mastery of both paint and occasion was turned to work and play, and mostly to play. It was as if the meek of the earlier series of drawings had at last inherited the earth. The people of Family at the Seaside, 1961, may be the same as those in Sea and Sand, but they relax with their own near nakedness and in the country as they found it, and the still tatty architecture as they put it to use. Such confidence is as much a part of the employed activity of The Dock, Scarborough, 1966, seen as if a toytown, where the colours are like tokens of the different functions of the workforce. With the loss of his sense of despair in the first drawings, there is a distance from the shared experience, yet colour and design interlock with an exuberance that blesses. For his retrospective exhibition at the Bradford Art Gallery in 1977, when he retired after a brief time as ‘keeper of exhibitions’, he painted a further six foot wide oil Canal above Gargrave, in which families playing at fishing and boating are caught in an extraordinary radiance. The tight, classical design is so worked into what was actually there, that by a miracle there is no breach of decorum, and a composition that might have given value to an old master narrative, finds its place as a servant of this modern and domestic subject.
When Sea and Sand was published by Smith Settle in 1988, they chose for the cover not one of the series of drawings from the contents, but a gouache made much later at Scarborough, of the same subject but infinitely more cheerful in mood. In the years around 1970 Kitching produced a mass of these quickly drawn and coloured gouaches of his family, that is his wife and their son and daughter and their friends. They are an extension of his constant drawing of nudes from imagination, and have a direct simplicity and decorative colour that make them his most attractive work.
The lifetime near-isolation of Kitching was cruelly restricting for him, and yet for us, ten years after his death, it is fortunate that he was unable to afford the place offered by the Royal College of Art in 1936. His unbroken self-improvement allowed him to keep a contact with his home landscape that a more urbane professionalism would have erased. He might have been another artist of the Euston Road School, maybe he could have become an inspiring teacher in a London art school, but instead, his work is unique and convincing, and located in a part of Britain that has no better witness. January 1991
© Grove Hill Publications 1991
David Fraser Jenkins is an art historian and a Keeper of the Modern Collection at the Tate Gallery. He has been an ardent admirer of Arthur’s work since the exhibition North and South at Leeds City Art Gallery in 1987, and publication of the book Pavements and People in the same year. He has Arthur’s paintings in his own collection. This note was published as the introduction to a book, Arthur Kitching 1912-1981, Grove Hill Publications, 1991.