Herbert Read

by Mark Gerson, bromide print

by Mark Gerson, National Portrait Gallery

Sir Herbert Edward Read (1893-1968) was born near Nunnington in the Vale of Pickering, Yorkshire, the eldest of four children of tenant farmers; he became a well-known poet, anarchist, literary critic and writer on art. He wrote one fantasy novel, The Green Child: A Romance (1935), inspired by the story of the green children of Woolpit, Suffolk. This story was originally told in William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicanum (c. 1189): two green children, who ate only beans, and who did not speak English, arrived in this village. The boy died, but the girl survived. and learned to speak English: she explained that they had come from St Martin’s Land, an underground world where all people were green. On Reed’s interesting utopian novel, see the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Read’s father died in 1903, and Reed and his brother were sent to an austere orphans’ school in Halifax.From 1909 to 1912 he worked as a clerk, but he took evening classes, and in 1912, with the help of an uncle’s legacy, he went to the University of Leeds in 1912 to study law and economics. He read voraciously, lost his religion and his political conservatism, and became enthralled by modern art.

He joined the army in 1915: see here for his war service. As Tanya Harrod puts it, “Read left the army a captain, a convinced pacifist, a war poet, and a youthful war hero who had been awarded the Military Cross (1917) and the DSO (1918).”

In 1919 he married the Leeds science student Evelyn May Roff, with whom he had corresponded throughout the war. He became a civil servant, working for the Ministry of Labour and then the Treasury. But he also threw himself into the literary and artistic culture of London, become friends with the Sitwells, Wyndham Lewis and Ford Madox Ford, among others. He published a collection of poems in 1917, and two in 1919. He took up a post as curator of ceramics and glass at the Victorian and Albert Museum in 1922, and began writing on art: English Pottery, written with Bernard Rackham in 1924, was an important book, as was his own Art and Industry (1934).

In 1931 he became Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh: in 1933 he left this job, and his marriage, and began living with a young musician, Margaret Ludwig. They settled in Hampstead, where they remained after his divorce from Evelyn and his marriage to Margaret in 1936. In 1949 he returned to Yorkshire, buying Stonegrave House, a large rectory near where he had been born.

He was a leading figure in the art world from the 1930s onwards; between 1933 and 1938 he edited the seminal Burlington Magazine. He supported modern sculptors like Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and was also very interested in surrealism, which he saw as standing for freedom in the face of the rising fascism of the 1930s. He was a very early critic of the Nazis, and in 1937 declared himself an anarchist. He continued his principled stance to the end of his life, going on demonstrations against nuclear war, and refusing to visit Spain while Franco was alive. In 1953 his wife persuaded him to accept a knighthood for services to literature (which lost him a lot of his anarchist friends). He carried on writing in the 1950s and 1960s: his A Concise History of Modern Painting (1959) and A Concise History of Modern Scupture (1964) were very influential. He died at Stongrave House in 1968, and was buried at the lovely ancient church of St Gregory Minster, Kirkdale, which he had mentioned in his reminiscences of his childhood The Innocent Eye (London: Faber and Faber, 1933), “Our Church was still where the monks who first built it twelve centuries ago had wanted it to be, in a wild valley, near a running beck, gray like a wild hawk nesting in a shelter of dark trees” ( 57).

On 11 November 1985, Read was among sixteen Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by a fellow Great War poet, Wilfred Owen. It reads: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

I am indebted to Tanya Harrod’s account in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and to the article in Wikipedia, from which I lift my last paragraph.



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