by Stephen Chaplin
Senior Fellow of Fine Art, Leeds University
Edited for the web by Stephen Robertson
21st January 1988
I begin by reflecting on what kind of occasion I see this evening to be. The colleagues who invited me to talk to you have the warmest and most affectionate remembrance of Arthur Kitching, a sentiment shared by very many others in Yorkshire. They recall his friendliness, humility and humour; his quietness, resolution and wry disaffection with the facade thought necessary by the ambitious. But above all they admire his painting and they feel it to be greatly under-valued. Your secretary asked me to speak at this moment, which is between two belated retrospective showings of his works: in Leeds City Art Gallery last year, and at Bradford shortly. They wished me to pay tribute, to speak of the quality of his work. This I am very happy to do. My qualification is that I came to know Arthur in the 70s when I wrote each month for the Yorkshire Arts Magazine, and for six years made regular contact with him; and, through his introduction, with the artists whose work, month after month, he’d arranged to show; first in Ilkley and later for the Bradford Authority. And when his own turn came for an exhibition, his “Retrospective” in 1977, the year of his retirement, I went to his home, Glan-y-don, Ilkley, to see his work and talk about his theory of art. I was impressed by the stature of his painting. My response to this invitation tonight, as a historian of art interested in the social aspects of my study is to share with you thoughts on constructing a framework of modernism for understanding not only his artistic, but also his intellectual and social projects.
In the extensive autobiographical notes he made in 1977, since collected and typed by Joyce, Arthur Kitching speaks in great, strongly visual, detail of his early life in Sheffield. He saw his family as “working class”, with a “self-help” attitude. And of the grandparents: neither church nor chapel, they had neither books nor music in the home. Although he could show well above average response to school studies, motivation proved lacking. As well, he suffered from a medical condition of which he only spoke once or twice during his life, but which entailed surgical operations during childhood. Education began in an active sense in contact with the other teenage lads: at work, hiking, cycling, at the cinema, and privately, reading. He began to see his own future in some relation to post-war reform. He had been six at the end of the Great War; fourteen at the time of the General Strike; twenty at the height of the depression, and twenty-five at the beginning of the Hitler rearmament programme that brought new opportunities for Sheffield steel.
Clear, chronological autobiography is a product of a class possessing a tradition of literary culture, an executive function, and self-esteem. It is therefore to be expected that Arthur’s “Autobiography” fails adequately to chronicle the astonishing shifts of interest and the development of goals which he made over these early years.
In a passage of brilliant analysis and cultural positioning Arthur says, “The turning point in my life came at the age of eighteen. Up to then I cannot have had any personality as such. I was agreeable, conformist, and culturally not up to par … At eighteen, either something clicked or else it was a fruition of something lying there that had not shown itself. The catalyst, if that is the right word, was H.G. Wells’ Short History of the World. This book led me out of myself into the world of ideas.” His progress was the more remarkable as he strove in relative isolation. And a useful distinction can be made with Richard Hoggart, also from a working class Yorkshire background, who gained an early, though uneasy, intellectual community through being a Grammar school high achiever, and then a University student. Arthur Kitching’s early mentors settled no mantle of specialness upon him. He, l think, saw that to “do well”, with the intellectual “rating” with which he was accredited, could steer him clear of health-undermining manual work, only to enlodge him for life, behind a clerk’s desk.
So it was he took the clerk’s pen, but rejected the incumbent ideology. The “Autobiography” gives only hints as to what must have been an arduous, disjointed, often lonely course, reading, conversation with fellow workers and class students. And from this initial formulation of views about literature and social issues, soon after he came to a determined identification with the practitioners of modern art.
First, however, his autobiographical text mentions the names of Wells, Shaw, Huxley, Lewis, Aldington and Pound, and the “New Statesman”. From these aboriginal mists comes one moment remembered, a remark for quiet absorption, he was informed that the “Listener” was a “tool of the establishment!”
To give context to Arthur’s early years, it is appropriate to look to H.G. Wells, more than once mentioned as a major influence. Wells, in his “Outline of History”, 1920, speaks of the next step of world history as “universal self-education”, a vast free literature of criticism and discussion where private enterprise is not abolished but becomes the servant of the common government for the common good. And Wells speaks of the present chaos; of the disasters of political and social life, and he advocates a new planned order to halt the slide into ever more murderous technologically sophisticated war. His project was to establish a new order. But visual art, though hinted at in one or two asides, finds no development whatsoever within Wells’ idea. Art and society: were there analogies to be made? Was there more than this? Was there a structured relationship? This concept of universal order “some constructive scheme as socialism sketches” (Wells), was the kind of history Arthur had not heard at school or at home. He came to see war as “a put up job by the army, politicians and big business”. Yet his social comment is unprogrammatic.
For instance: of the refuse tipped near housing during his childhood he comments: “I don’t think it could happen now”, and of the nearby work-shops he remarks on: “sparks and glow of the small open hearth furnaces which were intriguing to a small boy. Nevertheless it did not lead to a long life for the grinders”.
With our knowledge that Arthur was to produce paintings and drawings in every possible moment of his life, we should now scrutinise his turning towards visual art. The earlier references to art are unemphasised asides – about two amateur landscapes on the wall at home; and about taking art among other subjects at school. Next, chronologically, intervenes the intellectual awakening we have already observed. The earliest attempts at visual creativity that follow this period are in fact illustrations to Literature; to H.G. Wells, Jerome K. Jerome and W.W. Jacobs. “As I realised from my school-days, I was not unduly gifted at drawing, yet it became important to me.” How the historian could wish for more explicit reference! And he tellingly sums up: “In those days to write and draw at all seemed very daring.”
So Arthur slowly evolved an identity in visual art: no parental stereotypes, little school involvement. The incentive to draw came more from public library fiction: a literature not of form, but of humour and political message. The resolve to study art strengthened. He undertook evening classes, then briefly day sessions at Sheffield School of Art. None of his fellow students went on to great success. He gives a picture of a sparse environment, save for the impressive presence of the lonely and defeatist tutor, Eric Jones, and save for learning to draw in the mode of Stanley Spencer.
No money could be found for him to study at the Royal College of Art in London, where he had gained entry. Education for him was to continue as a question of listening, reading, indeed of overhearing: “I enjoyed”, he said, “sitting in the parks, talking along with the university students.”
When one comes to the early post-war years we have far firmer references upon which to build. He had - by what precise steps one would like to know - found that art was to be the centrally important focus of his life: that he must above all paint and draw: that Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Lewis were the models he should follow: that art could be a question of discussion; that everyone should know about it; that he could do something about their not knowing.
By 1948 he had amassed enough work within the parameters of modernism for serious exhibition.
What was this project of modernism in art, as presented in the 30s and 40s? To what extent could Arthur negotiate between Sheffield and the achievements of Paris, between H.G. Wells and Picasso? As we have seen, Wells himself had failed to address the issue of art within his new socio-political order. And Fry and Bell had, beginning before the Great War, failed to address the issue of Political and Social order in their construction of concerns for art, that were specific solely to art. By the 30s a third powerful voice had entered British Art criticism, Herbert Read, who worried eclectically away at these problems. A quotation from his “Art and Society” of 1936 epitomises the problem not, I emphasise, specific only to Arthur Kitching’s particular problems. Read, a fellow Yorkshireman, but a farmer’s son, university student, First World War officer, said in ‘Art and Society’, “The essential nature of art will be found neither in the production of objects to satisfy practical needs, nor in the expression of religious or philosophical ideas, but in the artist’s capacity to create a synthetic and self-consistent world. Art is an autonomous activity, influenced like all our activities by the material conditions of existence, but as a mode of knowledge at once its own reality and its own end.”
I suggest there is a paradox here: that art is : (a) autonomous, yet (b) influenced by material conditions. Let me intervene at once to say that there was no available system of representation to negotiate working-class Sheffield-life within modernist art forms. Stanley Spencer’s reading of modernism, infused as it was by a strong visionary, yet figurative style, could provide only a clue. And there is nothing to suggest that Kitching knew of, or could have been at all interested in, the leftist realist mores associated with the Artists International Association in London.
And Arthur in a memorable passage from a manuscript fragment, comes near to relating the project of art to other projects of life, when he says: “Perhaps the problem was the same to those driven by ancient forces to find a god behind the cat that had kittens, and the stone that fell on them from a height. The same problem that made the artists of our ancestors build a world of credibility and assurance. As that world crumbles, it is a race to build a new one. The fabric of faith falls apart.”
Pulling out the operative idea from this, I might direct your attention to the way he suggests that the “same” problem “drives” religion and art. That they are not discrete: the end of both is to “assure” society. Now he says the world crumbles: art has … [here his text is unclear] … perhaps a function, within (a) building towards the totality of our future, or perhaps he means, (b) art may possibly create its own certainties where none now exist in religion. The lack of clarity is no reflection on Arthur’s power of analysis; rather does the comparison lie in the lack of rigour, or the possibility of verification in the theory of modern art.
Arthur Kitching, as we have seen, declared for the École de Paris, and for Wyndham Lewis: “The objective eye of Percy Wyndham Lewis”, he wrote, “gave me strength and direction. I knew what was going on in Bloomsbury, Paris and points east.” And most illuminatingly on modern art: “The belief that art was a solid created thing out of a world of momentaryness was growing in me. To take the pieces and arrange them in an order particular to myself was an ambition I still pursue.” One is reminded of what a contemporary critic said of Lewis: Roy Campbell, 1931: “In Lewis’ work we leave behind the world of semi-organic dreams and enter a world of vivid ideas, hard contours and momentous impacts.” That is very close to the Arthurian view.
Arthur told me that he saw himself as self-taught: “better to work as a Sunday painter away from art circles … the gap is an advantage.” However the worlds of Paris and England were to come together for those who could visit London in 1949, where there was a momentous “École de Paris” exhibition. By quoting from the preface to the catalogue, I hope to provide a preamble to considering the problems of practising and promoting modernism in Sheffield. In the 1949 R.C. Exhibition catalogue, Frank McEwan wrote: “At the turn of the century Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and perhaps Redon handed over discoveries to a group of artists gathered from the four corners of Europe, to thrash out conceptual problems of creative art. Paris became a hot bed of plastico - intellectual inventions … strong men only kept abreast of the stream while the less vital, (in some cases the more independent) remained behind.”
Arthur at this time knew of all this work only in reproduction. Yet he was determined to participate. Soon after the war he submitted work, influenced by Vorticism, to John Rothenstein, then director of Sheffield City Art Galleries. The response was polite but the willingness to exhibit nil. Arthur Kitching became an instigator of the Norfolk St. Gallery in Sheffield which promoted modernist painting. And, in a statement prefacing a show of his own (with two ardent friends, at the “Old Harrow” pub in October, 1948), he put the position admirably: “It is rarely that the people of Sheffield have the opportunity of seeing work in the modern idiom by Sheffield artists. They may be excused in thinking there is none. But now after exhibiting in private galleries in Manchester and Birmingham we have been granted this opportunity of showing work within easy reach of our own city.”
Now let us follow through to the early 70s, this project shared — after marriage to Joyce and a period in Essex — with Ilkley based artists Marie Walker Last and Eric Satchwell.
Arthur wanted to succeed as an artist in modernist terms. And in the early 60s “there was a great deal of faith in the air. Such artists as I knew were working with the intention of being successful. There was rarely, if ever, an attempt to define success. But we all knew the general direction to go. We thought that if we painted and exhibited and our exhibitions were a success, received favourable notices and some work sold, we should eventually be wherever we wanted to be, wherever that was.” And on another page he reflects, anticipating my argument: “I think it would have been fatal if we had really understood the odds against success.” But they did not assess the situation: to what extent local and national press, the professional gallery directorship, and local people, would fail to respond to modernism especially in a locally generated context.
Again Arthur Kitching’s autobiography analyses the problem with bitterly accurate hindsight, thus: “Another show at Middlesbrough was from the point of view of attendance, a complete flop. Only four people came to the private view which was on a Saturday afternoon. Gradually I began to understand the pattern and the possibilities, the limitations of provincial exhibitions. They could be well organised, be very good social occasions. They could be well received, but they did not sell much work. The public in general looked upon the shows as social happenings. Perhaps, quite rightly, they thought the paintings were put there for their edification. So they were in part. The artist liked to show his skills. But at the back of the artist’s mind was the hope that the public would like the work enough to buy it. For most artists, that never came about, except for the odd picture. The writing was plain enough on the wall, but the artist having worked for a year or two, or more, to produce a one man show, had little stomach for the cold clear light of reason.”
Contrast this with an account of an artist born in Sussex in 1905, son of a solicitor, ill health, art school, a private income and early London acclaim. He was without ambition of any kind. If his work sold he was mildly pleased, if not he was indifferent. He required only sufficient income to keep up his cottage in Rye and visit London twice a week. He almost always sold well, and rarely read press notices of his exhibitions. The account I paraphrase is by John Rothenstein, who, after Sheffield, became director of the Tate. The artist described is Edward Burra.
One major cause of this perceived “failure” was that “modern art” was (and still is) a constructed account, a standard account. For instance, the exhibition catalogues emanating from the Museum of Modern Art under the aegis of A.H. Barr in the 30s, gave a concatenated list of grouped names, the individual, creative geniuses allocated to groups (the “isms” of modern art), and the “isms” were linked in a narrative, a closed system to which only footnotes and appendices and appropriations have accrued over the decades. R.H. Wilenski gave an English accent to the account, and Nikolas Pevsner formulated a design version in “Pioneers of Modern Design”. Even the noted tradition of the “English eccentric” has largely failed to combat this reading of what constitutes value in painting in western society. Those in positions of influence in the press saw it as their jobs to bring international excellence to the public. Their success was in terms of provincial “spectator consumption”, not in validating local production. Producers must seek approval via education and success through metropolitan organisations and institutions.
A second cause of this “failure” is pinpointed by Walter Benjamin. He saw our age as instigating the growth, to omnipresence, of the mechanically produced image: excellent, cheap reproductions of the masterpieces on the standardised list of internationally established excellence. If you can stick on your wall a fine colour print of Van Gogh’s Drawbridge at Arles, do you want a painting by a Sheffield artist? It is not that the Sheffield artist is necessarily worse; the work is just not wanted. I hope that you have had time to begin to have your own opinions about the quality of Arthur Kitching’s paintings, as they have been projected this evening against the work of other artists. They should, I think, always be represented on the walls of our big local galleries, and would yield their own special vision on the walls of the Tate.
Wyndham Lewis made the acerbic distinction between those who were “cubists” and those who merely “cubed over”. Those, that is, who understood, and those who “strung along”. In this sense Arthur Kitching understood Modernism. He is for me at his best when he slowly constructs form over an extended period of time: the art of exact relationships. And what, by way of explaining this term “modernism”, that I have repeatedly used, can I present you, on the scale of this evening’s agenda? It has a complex of meanings, general and specific: something discernibly different in 30s to 80s contexts. A way of seeing what Arthur could have hoped to do by painting may be suggested by quoting Douglas Cooper in 1950, where he speaks of a painter who by his invention sweeps the spectator into the pictorial adventure, showing him how to reconcile one thing with another and revealing endless new visual harmonies. That is the attributes of inventiveness, novelty, adventure, relationships, harmony and the visual. Cooper, incidently, is speaking of Leger, a generation older, but a figure dominating the Paris of Arthur’s youth. I find the relation of figure to ground a fascinating area of speculation in Arthur’s work. Though resolved by the brush, down into a myriad of shapes, his figures keep their identity, particularly facial identity; against the pictorial rectangle where zig zags and striations fill the space, take on whirlwind directions, bearing off beyond the canvas. Is this a purely formal drama? Does one speak only of flatness against space, formal autonomy of the marks? Or of their representational function? Or can one expand on the drama of the tiny figures in conflict with the environment of man and of nature? And even further; are these figures inscribed in the tradition of the naif, which emphasises their common humanity and their frailty; are they in contest with the fragmentation of modernism? If we are formalists we would reject this. If we refer only to the artist’s explanation, we would have no proof of our theory. If we were poets we might be pleased with our flight of fancy. And if we were materialists informed by psychoanalysis we might think we have a theory to work on.
My concluding section is couched in personal reminiscence but my remarks are still intended to bear on the main theme of modernism.
As I said earlier, I used to write each month for the Yorkshire Arts Association magazine, previewing exhibitions. Each month, you recall, I would ring Arthur for information about the show he had arranged for the next month. The gentle soft voice would reply after a moment’s reflection: “I think you’d like the work … it’s by a young artist … it’s very good.” And I would follow the cue, make the studio visit, never be disappointed. No one else in the region fulfilled this function in promoting modernist art - especially before the creation of the polytechnic galleries.
I also visited other members of a group more or less clustered round Ilkley Art Club, who formed a network of debate round modern painters - Eric Satchwell, Marie Walker Last, Margaret Firth, Dorothy Bradford. And as well, Derek Hyatt, Megan and Michael Dawson, Bert Roberts, Shirley and Olaf Bork. And with them the connections go to Ilkley Training College to the Yorkshire Arts Association and Leeds College of Art. In the words once more of Arthur, “From the early sixties to the early seventies, the mood of Modernism in Ilkley prevailed. Art was a real thing that could be talked about and done. We suspected that we were not avant garde but we were learning all the time.”
When I visited Arthur on 19th June 1977, I made notes as he spoke of his work, and next day wrote them up. I quote from my write-up first:
At 4.40 to Arthur Kitching, Glan-y-don, Ilkley. Down a lane and into a curving unmade drive to the cliff-like house; trees, lank growth, cut patches of lawn. Rotting timber, windows propped up from broken sashes, flapping plastic double glazing. He met me with hoe in hand: “1870s spec building, then rented”, he said. They were in fact two isolated semis, basement and three giant floors; steps, porches, bay windows, gables; millstone grit and heavy timber. Inside: old partitions, pieces curtained off, loose carpets, dusty crassulae. Five retirement cards of pictures in reproduction on the mantlepiece, ‘A’ level geography papers of the son, father’s strong, bold paintings on all the wall surfaces - chairs new and very old, hi-fi, new magazines and avant-garde books of the 30s - Faulkner, Wyndham Lewis, Penguin new writings, early works of Picasso, Matisse: ‘Encounter’, ‘Horizon’, Rembrandt.
Arthur as ever, quiet, clear-minded (I found it very hard to keep up with him as I wrote). A quiet sardonic humour. And his life obviously changed from what would have been its modern course by there being so very few scholarships in the 30s.
Then on to his theory. He emphasised that he was self-taught. The work he saw as in two directions: the figures in landscape, the portraits. The big pictures took from 3 to 6 months, one at a time, one always on the go, “one’s wife doing the rest”. (I afterwards learned that the autobiographical notes were written in contrition at the choice perforce made between his beloved wife and family, and his painting and writing.) He saw his life in terms of the early formative years, the gap of the war, with the high point of abstraction in the 50s “from naturalism to abstraction and back.” He spoke of his work as related to the now spent tradition of “the last iota of adjustment”. Of how Cezanne, whose work he had seen post-war in Paris, had been a disciplinary influence; the right shape and the right place for a brushstroke. That this slowed production and crippled those not suited. In answer to my question he said that he saw art as an important benefit to a community … a fringe benefit.
Art that was produced now “will speak to future years.” As we finished one hour or so’s session, he said, “I take my risk: my work can be stored or given honours!”