Frederick Kitton: from Pickwick to Preservation

Frederic Kitton’s life and works were the subject of an exhibition at St Albans Museum + Gallery (September, 2022). David Thorold, Curator at the St Albans Museum + Gallery, considers some of the varied interests of this energetic man.

Redbourn water colour, F. G. Kitton (Courtesy St Albans Museum + Gallery)

Frederic Kitton (1856-1904) was born in Norwich but lived much of his life in St Albans. As a young man, he and a friend spent a walking holiday travelling from Norwich to London. They passed through St Albans and both men made a vow that if they ever left Norwich they would move to this picturesque town. Kitton was an illustrator by trade at this time, and the historical aspects and visual appearance of St Albans seem to be what made him consider a move. In fact, he had settled in the city within a year, renting a house at the bottom of Holywell Hill.

Illustrator and journalist for The Graphic

Kitton’s regular form of employment at this time was as an illustrator and journalist for The Graphic, a prominent London newspaper, so a move to St Albans made sense – he certainly isn’t the first person to consider a move here in order to make travel to London quicker!

At the time, Kitton’s real passion was the life and works of Charles Dickens and he was in the process of establishing himself as one of the pre-eminent experts on this topic. The Dickensian later noted ‘there were few men better qualified to write upon matters connected with Dickens than Mr Kitton, whose name amongst lovers of Dickens is a household word’.

The following years saw a plethora of books relating to Dickens being published by Kitton. At first he supplemented what income he received from these publications (which could be sporadic) with his wages from the Graphic, but St Albans seems to have exerted an influence on him and he eventually retired from the paper and turned to providing illustrations for a number of local or county-based publications.

At first these seem to have been little more than work for hire but by 1893 he was co-editing the Hertfordshire Illustrated Review and providing not only illustrations but also articles as he sought to establish himself as a journalist first and illustrator second. The historic remnants of old St Albans and Hertfordshire were his chief subjects and he produced a great number of articles and publications on these in the following years.

Elected member of SAHAAS

Kitton’s growing fascination with St Albans saw him elected as a member of SAHAAS in 1897. He was involved in the foundation of what was then the County Museum, becoming its honorary curator for prints and drawings and he spent the next few years building up its collection of books and prints and instigating its art collection. His interest in the active preservation of the town’s older structures seems to have grown from this time on. He was an early advocate of the heritage movement, calling for an end to developer-led destruction of older buildings in the town and the development of laws that would lead to buildings being preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.

Opposed Lord Grimthorpe’s ‘restoration’ of the Cathedral

Kitton took particular umbrage at the rebuilding projects of the cathedral’s west front and St Michael’s church tower, both funded by Lord Grimthorpe, and wrote to the Herts Advertiser complaining of what he saw as Grimthorpe’s vandalism. He was more successful in preserving other buildings, most notably the Gables in the Market Place which had been purchased by Boots. This was saved following a petition brought about by his article in the Herts Advertiser, ‘The Vanishing of St Albans – a Plea for the Picturesque’ (26 August 1899, p.5). The building still stands today.

The Gables, F. G. Kitton (Courtesy St Albans Museum + Gallery)

This exhibition considered Kitton’s life while living in St Albans, including his work on Dickens and examined the illustrations produced during this time, with a focus on his developing interest in preserving the town’s historic past.

A tribute to John Cox

The origin of the exhibition lay with the late John Cox, an Honorary Member of SAHAAS. John had carried out a large amount of research over many years into the life of Frederic Kitton. This exhibition was based on and dedicated to John’s work.