Sinclair Hamilton Hitchings, curator, author, editor, influential member of many Boston cultural institutions, book and art collector, and promoter of Boston artists, died on Jan. 18, 2018, at the age of 84 in Edgartown. His professional career was marked by a deep commitment to making art accessible to the general public and to supporting living Boston artists.
Hired as keeper of prints by the Boston Public Library in 1961, he spent the next 44 years building the institution’s collections of European and American artists. As a result, the Print Department of the Boston Public Library now has one of the finest collections of art on paper, including prints, watercolors, drawings, and photographs. The collection also includes works of hundreds of living artists, many with connections to Boston.
Since the Boston Public Library is owned by the city, Hitchings viewed his role as making art accessible to the public through the library’s Wiggin Gallery. He considered his work a visual documentation of society that could serve as an educational force in the present and an archive for the future. Monthly exhibitions in the Wiggin Gallery brought in artists, patrons, and the general public. His friendships within the community brought in additional art and $10 million, which were placed in restricted funds for the benefit of the collection.
A popular speaker, he was frequently asked to give lectures in Boston, across the country, and in Canada. His subject matter was wide and varied, from colonial Boston printers to 19th century European artists and back to Boston for contemporary artists. At the Boston Public Library, he founded an annual symposium exploring different topics on viewing and collecting art. In addition, he was one of the prime organizers of the North American Print Conference, a periodic gathering of print curators, historians, and collectors.
Hitchings was also a prolific writer and editor. Highlights included collaborations on books on color lithography in late 19th century France, as well as on artists Thomas Nason, Samuel Chamberlain, Stow Wengenroth, F.L. Griggs, and James McBey, among others.
As an educator, Hitchings taught classes at both Boston University and Simmons College, and welcomed students to the Print Department for seminars. Some of these students later returned as summer volunteers, where he would teach them to research art and organize exhibitions in the library’s gallery.
One of Hitchings’ joys in life was his friendships. His informal artists’ lunch program was well known and enthusiastically embraced by the artist community. Several times a week he’d invite an artist to lunch to learn more about that person’s artistic life. He then often purchased some of the work to add to the BPL’s collection. In addition, he made regular visits to numerous Boston galleries to view the latest shows by local artists. A hallmark of his friendships was his longstanding relationship with the Stinehour Press, which printed many of the BPL’s publications, and his deep friendship with its owner, Roderick D. Stinehour of Lunenberg, Vt.
Hitchings’ civic life also included membership in numerous clubs devoted to collecting and learning, such as the Club of Odd Volumes, St. Botolph Club, Examiner Club, Grolier Club, and a small men’s dining club where he enjoyed decades of deep and lasting friendships.
Over the course of his career, his greatest passion became celebrating and supporting living Boston artists. He was a major influence in the creation of an official holiday, Boston for Boston Artists. Inspired by the 1958 “Great Day in Harlem” photograph of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance taken on the steps of a Harlem brownstone, in 1998 he organized a similar photo of more than 600 local artists on the steps of the Boston Public Library. After his retirement in 2006, he set up a nonprofit organization named Art in Boston, dedicated to living Boston artists. Hitchings’ dream was to found a small museum on Newbury Street in Boston devoted to the work of local artists. He was fond of saying that tourists who came to Boston for the history would be further enriched by taking home artwork by a living Boston artist.
He believed that art added insight and resonance to our lives. In 2006, Clifford Ackley of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts described Hitchings in a Boston Magazine article as “one of the most conspicuous figures in the Boston and Cambridge art scene, famous for his anecdotes, hearty laugh, and good humor. He’s been incredibly important to many artists.” In 1990 he was recognized with an honorary degree from the Massachusetts College of Art, and in 2003 he received an award of distinction from the Southern Graphics Print Conference. Hitchings’ influence on the arts in Boston was recognized by Mayor Thomas Menino, who declared June 30, 2005 (the day Hitchings retired from the BPL), to be Sinclair Hitchings Day in the city.
Born in 1933 in the Philippines as the only child of Lieut. Col. John Lyman Hitchings and Rosanna McCleave Hitchings, he lived on small Cavalry posts throughout the American West during his childhood. Homeschooled through the Calvert program, he then experienced a succession of schools during his father’s frequent, Army-generated, pre–World War II moves. He later graduated from his father’s alma mater, the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., and was valedictorian of his class in 1950. He then double-majored in English and graphic arts at Dartmouth College, where he was a student of Ray Nash, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1954. He enrolled in NROTC at Dartmouth College, and after graduation served for two years in the Navy as ensign. He was always proud of his service.
He first visited relatives on Martha’s Vineyard while a student at Dartmouth College, and later became a longtime seasonal resident. Over the years, the holly tree–shaded back porch became his favorite place to read, and the dining room table a good place to write book introductions and texts on artists, lectures on numerous subjects, autobiographical essays to share, and numerous handwritten letters in black pen to family, artists, and friends. In retirement, he and his wife moved to the Edgartown family home, and found the Island a wonderful place to live year round.
He leaves behind his wife of 53 years, Catherine (Farlow), a genealogist, historian, and author. During their early years of marriage, they were overseers for the historic Cooper-Frost-Austin House in Cambridge (c.1681-82), owned by Historic New England. They have two sons, Hamilton and Benjamin, and two grandchildren.
A memorial gathering will be held at a later date, and burial will be in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. The family wishes to thank their many Island friends, Sarah Sengooba, Hope Hospice, Horizons Geriatric Care Management, and the many supportive groups for the elderly on Martha’s Vineyard.