Herbert Read

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Biographical Information

Sir Herbert Read (died in 1968)

"The permanent effects of Read's childhood on a farm are suggested by a passage in 'Poetry and Anarchism', published in 1938: 'In spite of my intellectual pretensions, I am by birth and tradition a peasant. I remain essentially a peasant. I despise the whole industrial epoch - not only the plutocracy which has risen to power but also the industrial proletariat which it has drained from the land. The only class in the community for which I feel any real sympathy is the agricultural class including the genuine remnants of a landed aristocracy'.

"It is not perhaps altogether easy to discern the peasant in this intellectual personality, but the passage is interesting for more than one reason, it gives the exact turn of Read's 'loftward' inclination in politics towards Tolstoy rather than Marx. It may also help to explain why Read, though he wrote about art and industry, did not seem to be very enthusiastic about the artistic possibilities of the machine... Read left the Army to become an assistant in the Department of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum. His books, it may be noted, including technical works on 'English Stained Glass', 'Staffordshire Pottery Figures' and 'English Pottery', the last with Bernard Rackham. In 1931 he was appointed professor of fine art at Edinburgh University. He was Sydney Jones Lecturer in Art at the University of Liverpool, 1935-36 and for several years edited the 'Burlington Magazine', relinquishing the post on his appointment as director of a proposed Museum of Modern Art, which the outbreak of war prevented. In the same year he joined the board of directors of the publishing house of Routledge and Kegan Paul, his first task being to edit a series of monographs on 'English Master Painters'.

"Subsequently he held a number of educational appointments in England and the United Stated, being Leon Fellow in the University of London, 1940-42; Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, 1953-54 and A W Mellon Lecturer in the Fine Arts, Washington, 1954...

"Arguably it was in literary criticism that Read reached his highest level, but the accident that the subject was more 'in the news' made him more widely known as a writer on modern art and the champion of its most extreme and controversial forms. His criterion of modernity being that of Klee, 'the intention not to reflect the visible, but to make visible'. He was sometimes accused of being an erudite theorist without sensuous response to aesthetic values, but in producing his 'Critic's Choice' of paintings at Messrs Tooth's Gallery in 1956 (all tending towards 'abstraction'), he stated with emphasis that 'I like this kind of art - it gives me a directly sensuous and profound enjoyment'. It was, however, in a clear and systematic analysis and exposition of aims and trends that he excelled in his writings. In this respect his 'Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture', first published by Faber and Faber in 1933 and now a standard work and his 'Concise History of Modern Painting', published by Thames and Hudson in 1959, are works that could hardly be bettered. Other notable studies were his account of Mr Henry Moore's sculpture and 'The Art of Sculpture', 1956. Read exerted influence also as President of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which in association with Mr Roland Penrose, he launched in 1947. When introducing the inaugural exhibition of 'Forty Years of Modern Art' at the Academy Hall in London he said that the ICA was intended to create 'not another museum, another bleak exhibition gallery … but an adult play-centre … a source of vitality and daring experiment'. He became a leading supporter of the 'Ban the Bomb' movement and sat down in Trafalgar Square.

"He published 'Henry Moore: A Study of His Life and Work' in 1965 and 'Art and Alienation' last year.

"Read was knighted in 1953. A lanky man of few but solemn words and an apparent timidity which once caused him to be compared to 'an amiable tortoise', he was far from being timid, as his war record shows, and for all his solemnity, he had a keen sense of fun. When his eyes narrowed with inward laughter the 'tortoise' became very much more like a faun. His personal qualities were of value both to the British and to the international art world. During the 1930s, for instance, when he lived in Hampstead, within easy calling distance of Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, he was constantly on hand during one of the crucial episodes in the history of modern British art. It was at that time that his stature as a pioneer interpreter of new ventures in art was first fully revealed. He was, moreover, one of the few people who managed to remain on good terms with both the surrealist group and the pure-abstraction group. After the war he was much in demand as an elder statesman of art and on many occasions he represented Great Britain abroad; on juries and committees of all kinds his meaningful silences and occasional brief bursts of eloquence turned out to be immensely effective. His foreign colleagues came, in fact, to ascribe an almost Delphic importance to his interventions: 'When Read does at last open his mouth', one of them once remarked, 'you know there's nothing more to be said'. Read was liked and respected by a great many artists, important and unimportant, and his seventieth birthday was marked in private by tributes unusual in their whole-hearted acknowledgement of all that he had done on their behalf." [1]


  • David Goodway (ed.), Herbert Read reassessed (Liverpool University Press, 1998).
  • George Woodcock, Herbert Read: The Stream and the Source (Faber and Faber, 1972).

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  1. TImes Herbert Read, organizational web page, accessed April 2, 2012.