Leeds Fine Artists

The industrialisation of Britain in the nineteenth century greatly affected Leeds, and a middle class of professionals grew up to service the expanding industrial base. This new class had the leisure to pursue cultural interests, and in 1874 the Leeds Fine Art Club was founded. The Club soon became a major player in the intellectual life of the city. Its meetings and discussions, known as conversaziones, together with annual exhibitions, were extremely popular. A dedicated group of members kept the Club running during the First World War, until the final conversazione was held in 1921 at Leeds City Art Gallery. The artistic activities were maintained both in the interwar years and during the Second World War, but the peace brought with it social changes that resulted in a more outward looking and professional approach.

In the course of its 150-year history Leeds Fine Artists has been associated with various artists of renown, some of whom were also prominent social reformers. Ina Kitson Clarke (1864-1954) studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and was President of Leeds Fine Art Club for 40 years. Her role as a campaigner for women’s rights was recognised with the award of an honorary doctorate by the University of Leeds in 1928. Beatrice Kitson (1876-1965) was the first woman to be Lord Mayor of Leeds, while her companion Ethel May Mallinson (1878-1970) was LFA secretary from 1908 to 1948, and a feminist and social campaigner. Ernest Leopold Sichel (1862-1941) was a portrait and still-life painter who was born in Bradford of German Jewish descent, while Willy Tirr (or Turr; 1915-1991) was born in Stettin, Germany, and became Head of Fine Art at Leeds College of Art, producing mostly abstract work. Eric Taylor (1909-1999) was Principal of the Leeds College of Art, particularly renowned for his murals and for the paintings he produced when he was among the British troops that liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

While some artists evoked the Yorkshire landscape, like Owen Bowen (1873-1967), a member of the Staithes Group, others travelled widely: Frank Dean (1865–1947) was born in Headingley, studied at the Slade and in Paris, and painted scenes from North Africa, the Middle East, and India. A blue plaque on Leeds City Art Gallery commemorates Robert Hawthorne Kitson (1873-1947): as a gay man he left Britain to live in Sicily, where his villa was much frequented by artistic friends including Frank Brangwyn and Wilhelm von Gloeden, the latter noted for his homoerotic photography. Kitson’s house in Taormina, the Casa Cuseni, is now a museum.

Perhaps the most famous artist in the ranks of the LFA is Jacob Kramer (1892-1962). He was born in Ukraine, but spent much of his working life in Leeds, where he became part of a group centred around the modern art collector, Sir Michael Sadler, Vice-Chancellor of the University. Kramer is particularly renowned for his depictions of Jewish life.

In 2010 the term ‘Club’ was dropped from the title as a reflection of the wider remit of the organisation. Members live throughout Yorkshire, with some further afield from Kent to Scotland, and the LFA continues to attract artists of the highest ability across a variety of media—painting, drawing, printmaking, ceramics, sculpture, and textiles.

Paul Hammond
Chair of Leeds Fine Artists