For more than four decades Sinclair Hitchings was the Boston Public Library’s keeper of prints, and while that formal-sounding title carried a whisper of musty antiquity, he was as attentive to the city’s present as he was a guardian of its past.
He was a champion of Boston artists and those with ties to the city, displaying their works in the library’s Wiggin Gallery and purchasing their prints and paintings when his department’s budget allowed. To Mr. Hitchings, however, the personal connections he made were as valuable and invigorating as the exhibitions he curated.
“My approach to collecting is highly personal. What I’m after is not the work of art, but the person who made it,” he told the Globe in 2000.
That meant he did more than just visit an artist and choose which works to display. He also kept in mind those future shows he would never attend. “I’m collecting every scrap of paper connected with their careers,” he said of the artists whose work he supported. “People will come here after I’m gone and find their way up to the print department and say, ‘We know you have this remarkable collection from the turn of the 21st century.’ ”
Mr. Hitchings, who had been diagnosed with cancer, died Thursday in his Edgartown home. He was 84. An author of books and exhibition programs, he was also an editor and a critic who wrote reviews for publications including the Globe.
“At heart, I am a biographer and a social historian, but my occupation compels me to be an art historian and I like that,” he wrote in a 1995 essay for the Library Bulletin at Dartmouth College, his alma mater.
Even at home he lived “in the presence of rarity,” he added. In his personal collection, “it is the human beings I am after, what they can share of their own discoveries in life,” he added. “In that sense, the library that my wife, Cate, and I have at home is filled with clues to the art of living. I buy books to nourish my interests.”
Those interests included the wood engravings of Thomas Nason, the paintings and writings of Samuel Chamberlain; the work of lithographer Stow Wengenroth; and the still-life paintings of Boston artist Barbara Swan, who died in 2003. In the 2000 Globe interview, Mr. Hitchings invoked the name of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who shared his view that Boston artists are important.
“This town does not exactly celebrate its own,” he once said while discussing Swan’s paintings. “It says in the Bible, ‘No one is a prophet in his own country.’ That’s true here. It was a much more level playing field 100 years ago, when Mrs. Gardner showed Boston painters. She didn’t treat them as inferior.”
And he dismissed suggestions that the local art scene was less important because of its distance from New York City. “A provincial subsidiary of New York? Don’t give me that,” he told the Globe in 2003. “Boston has a distinct culture because it is one of the world’s greatest centers of learning. That’s what makes Boston different.”
Local artists were grateful for his support. “He’s exceptional,” Swan told the Globe in 2000. “No other museum concentrates on Boston the way he does. He’s not out for the hype; he’s fascinated with young artists and people who draw and artists of my generation. He makes us feel valuable.”
She added: “As a Boston artist, I have to say God bless Sinclair.”
Sinclair Hamilton Hitchings had a name that spoke of a Boston Brahmin upbringing, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. An only child, he was born in Manila while his father was stationed in the Philippines. His father, John Lyman Hitchings, was a lieutenant colonel in the cavalry, and his mother, the former Rosanna McCleave, was from a military family and didn’t object to the Army life of moving frequently while Mr. Hitchings was a boy.
Growing up, Mr. Hitchings received his education through the Calvert homeschooling program before graduating at the top of his class from The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., which his father had attended.
He graduated in 1954 from Dartmouth College, where he majored in English and graphic arts, and participated in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps program. Afterward, he served in the military for two years.
Named the Boston Public Library’s keeper of prints in 1961, he orchestrated monthly exhibits in the Wiggin Gallery that totaled in the hundreds over the decades. He also expanded the art collection, raised money for the library, and often gave lectures to groups across the country and in Canada.
A couple of years after he started, Catherine Farlow, a historian who is known as Cate, interviewed to be the researcher for a new State House guidebook he was writing. “I thought I was going to meet some old gray-haired guy,” she recalled. “We met in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library.”
During the project, “we got to know each other and it was so much fun,” she said. “And, of course, I fell in love with him and he fell in love with me.” They married in 1964, the year they published the guidebook as coauthors.
She added that “what was so fun in our marriage is that we had so many common interests. Whenever we traveled, we always liked to go to the same places. There always had to be good museums and interesting architecture.”
Under the auspices of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, they were overseers for a time of the Cooper-Frost-Austin House, and lived in Cambridge’s oldest house, which dates to 1681.
Along with his library duties, Mr. Hitchings taught at Boston University and Simmons College, and set up an annual symposium on collecting artworks. He also was a regular at Newbury Street’s galleries.
After retiring in June 2005, he launched the nonprofit Art in Boston to support living Boston artists. “Sinclair’s one of the heroes that makes this city what it is,” Thomas M. Menino, who was then Boston’s mayor, told the Globe when Mr. Hitchings stepped down from his library position.
Mr. Hitchings “always was very sure of who he was,” his wife said. “He felt that he’d had a wonderful life. He was doing the things he really loved to do.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Hitchings leaves two sons, Hamilton of Palo Alto, Calif., and Benjamin of Durham, N.C.; and two grandchildren. A service will be announced for Mr. Hitchings, who will be buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Over the years, the library budget available to Mr. Hitchings increased, but often it still wasn’t enough to purchase as many works from local artists as he would have liked. If budget funds ran dry, he slipped off to the Ritz-Carlton with his artist friends.
“I’ve taken hundreds of them to lunch. The human encounters are part of the reward,” he told the Globe in 2000, adding that “the realities of life at the Boston Public Library press in on me. The Ritz has a clarifying effect.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.