Obituary: Professor Michael Kitson

John Gage
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:13

WILLOWY, DIFFIDENT, fastidious, literary: these were the observable traits of a number of art historians teaching at the Courtauld Institute 40 years ago; but they belonged most of all to Michael Kitson, who was a Lecturer and Reader there from 1955 to 1978, and Professor from 1978 until the time of his retirement in 1985, as Deputy Director, to become Adjunct Professor at Yale University and Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London.

Not, we might think, the career of a diffident man; yet certainly that of a diffident scholar, who never ventured to write a major book (the long-awaited and long-pending volume on British 19th-century painting for The Pelican History of Art was finally abandoned), although he had assembled the ingredients of several major books, wrote many ground- breaking articles and exhibition catalogues and stimulated several of his students to write important monographs.

Kitson saw himself perhaps first of all as a teacher. He relished the direct contact with other minds that teaching brings. While he never sought to mould his pupils' thought, he spared no pains to clarify, and to pursuade them to clarify, its expression. This fastidious and literary cast of mind was perhaps to be expected in a descendant of Anthony Trollope; and it was to be reinforced at Gresham's School, in Norfolk, by a Leavisite teacher, Denys Thompson.

Cambridge English followed, with an Exhibition at King's College, where Foster and Leavis were the dominant figures. Kitson was not much attracted to a Leavisite style of moralising, but he saw literature - and of course visual art - as concerned first of all with the establishment of values. His sense of the classical values of visual organisation were nourished after Cambridge not only by the Courtauld Institute, then a centre for Renaissance and Baroque studies, but also at the Slade School of Art, where he held his first teaching appointment under the professorship of William Coldstream. His belief in l'ideale classico (the title of an exhibition at Bologna in 1962, to which Kitson made a notable contribution) is nowhere clearer than in his life-long devotion to the art of Claude Lorrain.

"Lifelong" and "devotion" are, in Kitson's case, no conventional exaggerations. As a schoolboy he would cycle from Gresham's to see the Claudes at Holkham Hall, more than 20 miles there and back. One of his most recent publications was the masterly (and substantial) article on Claude for the Macmillan Dictionary of Art; and he was working at his death on an article on the birth date of this painter, characteristic of his minute and scrupulous scholarship. From the 1960s Kitson established himself as a leading authority on Claude, and he might have become the leading authority, had not an early collaborator, Marcel Roethlisberger, been less diffident than he, and gone to press with catalogues of both the paintings and the drawings.

Kitson's reasons for loving Claude are nowhere better expressed than in the catalogue of the important exhibition he arranged for the Arts Council at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1969:

The first quality necessary to the enjoyment of Claude's art is patience. He is

not a painter who offers instant sensations, who appeals by the intricacy of his narratives or who cuts through to the spectator's emotions with some acute psychological insight. He does not transport the spectator in imagination up to heaven - although he does not either deal merely in the here and now. The process of coming to terms with his work is one of careful adjustment, of opening oneself to the harmonies in which he specialises . . . His art is subtle, elusive and hard to describe, but marvellously clear to the eye.

Here was practical criticism at its most engaged.

Kitson wrote on many artists, on Caravaggio, on Rembrandt, on Salvator Rosa (the "diametrical opposite" of Claude, and also the subject of a remarkable exhibition in 1973), on Turner and on Constable. In the case of these English painters he was, again, particularly concerned to define their relationship to Claude. On Constable he was one of the first art historians to make serious use of the rich documentation, both visual and written, which was emerging in the 1950s; and it was one of Kitson's pupils, Michael Rosenthal, who later wrote the first major modern study of Constable's early work.

Kitson's emphasis on the subjective response, on the personal encounter with the best works of the best masters, might seem to be at odds with the dominant styles of art-historical research and writing over the past 30 years, where ideological and contextual issues have been thrust increasingly into the foreground. But this would leave an incomplete impression of his interests. As early as 1968, Kitson's edition of an important, but maddeningly sketchy, manuscript by Hogarth, the Apology for Painters, included what must be one of the earliest discussions of the commodification of painting in England in the 18th century, and this interest in the infrastructure of art deepened during his time as Director of Studies at the Mellon Centre.

In 1989 he arranged the pioneering conference "Towards a Modern Art World", whose papers were published in 1995 as the first of the Mellon series Studies in British Art. He was also closely involved in the organisation, selection and cataloguing of the two major panoramic exhibitions of the post-war period to present British art from the 17th to the 19th centuries to a European public, at Paris in 1972 and at Munich in 1979.

But it would be wrong to focus exclusively on Kitson's public achievements. He was also a generous and supportive friend, and it was mainly in support of his many friends that he took on a leading (and formative) role in the Turner Society and the Courtauld Institute Association of Former Students. He loved company, especially the company of women; and he was very good company himself. I well recall a hot summer night at a cafe in Naples when the conversation continued well after closing-time and after the piazza had emptied. Yet he was neither an intimate nor an excitable talker; hints of diffidence were always there in the gentle grunts of assent (or, in a rather higher register, of scepticism), and in the slight recoil of surprise at a questionable idea, when his spectacles were used as a sort of shield.

Michael Kitson's private life was private, as well as being more turbulent than his public career; but as a scholar and teacher, measure was, I think, the measure of him. He felt closest to what he characterised as classical aesthetics, whose "laws are the humanist ones of proportion and relationship".

Michael William Lely Kitson, art historian: born Sutton, Surrey 30 January 1926; Assistant Lecturer in History of Art, Slade School of Art 1952-54; Lecturer, Courtauld Institute of Art 1955-67, Reader 1967-78, Professor 1978-85, Deputy Director 1980-85, Fellow 1985-98; Director of Studies, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art 1986-92; married 1950 Annabella Cloudsley (two sons); died London 7 August 1998.

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