Shrewsbury School, Ashton Rd, Shrewsbury SY3 7BA, UK
University Of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2, UK
Casa Cuseni, Via Leonardo Da Vinci, 5 – 7, 98039 Taormina ME
Protestant Cemetery, 98039 Taormina, Province of Messina
Robert Hawthorn Kitson was a British painter. As a gay man, he chose to leave England, where the Labouchere Amendment made life difficult. He settled in Sicily, where he built a villa in Taormina, Casa Cuseni, that is now a historic house museum.
Robert Hawthorn Kitson was born into a wealthy family, the eldest son of J.H. Kitson and Jessie Ellershaw. His grandfather James Kitson founded locomotive engineering firm Kitson and Company. His uncle was James Kitson, 1st Baron Airedale.
He studied at Shrewsbury School and then went up to Trinity College to study Natural Sciences in 1895. In the following year Robert was chosen to receive a Harkness Scholarship and mostly concentrated on geological studies. At Cambridge he befriended Cecil Arthur Hunt.
Kitson suffered from rheumatic fever and was advised to spend the winters out of England, in a sunnier climate. He Kitson became an artist, learning watercolour painting on sketching tours with Sir Alfred East and Sir Frank Brangwyn. From 1900 he was an active member of the Leeds Fine Arts Club.
After his father's death in 1899 Kitson moved to Sicily where he designed and built a villa with views of Mount Etna - Casa Cuseni. Before permanently settling in Taormina, Robert Kitson spent a lot of time in Venice, where he had his own regular gondolier. He also visited Naples and Ravello with his family and friends from Cambridge. His selection of Taormina was based on the city being on the rise a popular winter resort for European aristocracy. Kitson was also familiar with Wilhelm von Gloeden works made in Taormina. He owned von Gloeden's small collection of photographs of ephebes and heads of handsome Arab youths. Kitson also had long friendship with Bobbie Pratt-Barlow, a distant relative who settled in the Villa Rosa just below Casa Cuseni. Kitson was also travelling extensively around Europe by train and took long ship trips to North Africa, Egypt, Istanbul and once to Ceylon and India. Robert Kitson was one of Wilhelm von Gloeden studio clients. He and his visitors took their films to be developed and printed at von Gloeden's studio. Brangwyn writes in his letters that Kitson and von Gloeden were good friends before the Great War. One of Kitson's sketchbooks has a large group of sketches of young men, clothed as if Arabs and taken after von Gloeden's models. Von Gloeden was photographing Kitson's handsome Taorminese lover, making his portraits and nudes. People in Taormina called him the “crazy English” for his look. He was tall and thin with blue eyes and mustache and dressed with flamboyance with his colorful jackets. Robert Kitson lived on in Casa Cuseni until he was forced to leave Italy and come back to England when World War II reached Italy and Sicily became a battleground. 
When Sicily fell, Robert was regularly communicating with his friends left there. He had given the allies information on Sicily and tried, without success, to save the ancient bridge over the Alcantara river from destruction. He was happy to find out that Casa Cuseni survived the war and this spurred on his attempts to get home somehow. Mayor of Taormina requested English Authorities for Kitson's return as President of the local Building Commission on 7 March 1945. His presence was regarded as essential to the reconstruction of the town, since it was in ruins after disastrous bombardment of 9 July 1943. He returned to Sicily by the end of January 1946.  In summer 1947, Kitson returned to his prewar custom of spending the part of the summer with family and friends in England. He flew back to Italy early in September, stopping in Rome. He returned to Taormina on the 15th September 1947. He died in Casa Cuseni two days after coming back on 17th September 1947. Robert Kitson was buried in the non-catholic cemetery in Taormina in the presence of his Sicilian friends, some English expatriates and the Deputy British Consul in Sicily.
Robert Kitson realized he was homosexual at early age. He was able to live if not openly, but freely in Taormina, surrounded by community of artists and aristocrats. Charles Leslie writes Kitson had a brief romantic relationship with Frank Brangwyn, whom he later employed for decoration of his Taorminese villa. In Taormina, his longtime companion was handsome Sicilian boy Carlo Siligato. The series of Carlo's photographs by Vincenzo Galdi survived. 
When Kitson first went to Taormina in 1898, he decided to build a house there, on the spot 800 feet above the sea. There he constructed the classical villa, using local stones, marble, wood and terracotta. Kitson commissioned his friend Frank Brangwyn to create the dining-room. Brangwyn desined furniture and painted frescos there. When Robert Hawthorn Kitson died in 1947, the villa was inherited by his niece Dafna Phelps, who maintained and run it till her death in 2005.  The villa had been declared an Italian National Monument and hosts museum of fine art and small hotel. 
Robert Hawthorn Kitson regularly exhibited his work at the Royal Society of British Artists, International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts and had solo exhibitions at the Fine Art Society and in the Redfern Gallery.  Kitson's first major exhibition was in Rome in 1919 with a group of foreign artists resident in Italy. He exhibited 19 watercolours of Sicily and Kairouan. In October 1925 his solo show at the Fine Art Society included 57 works.
Robert Hawthorn Kitson works are in Victoria and Albert Museum, Leeds University library, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.. The most important collection of watercolours by Robert Hawthorn Kitson is now at Casa Cuseni, City-Museum of Taormina
BACK TO HOME PAGE