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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Sir Herbert Edward Read (1893-1968)


English poet, critic, and prolific essayist, a philosophical anarchist and outspoken pacifist during World War II. Herbert Read published over sixty books, of which a considerable number is still in print. In the 1950s Read's reputation placed him alongside such figures as T.S. Eliot and George Orwell.

"The only sin is ugliness, and if we believed this with all our being, all other activities of the human spirit could be left to take care of themselves. That is why I believe that art is so much more significant than either economics or philosophy. It is the direct measure of man's spiritual vision." (from The Meaning of Art, 1968)

Herbert Read was born on a farm in Kirbymoorside, North Riding of Yorkshire. He descended from a long line of yeoman farmers. His first ten years Read spent there at Muscoates Grange. After his father died in 1903, he was sent to a school for orphans in Halifax. He left school in 1908 and returned to Halifax, where his mother lived. There he met a tailor, William Prior Read (no relation), who introduced him to Russian classics and poets such as William Blake, Robert Browning and William Butler Yeats.

At the age of sixteen, Read started to work as a clerk at the Leeds, Skyrac and Morley Savings Bank. Through evening study, and with money borrowed from an uncle, he was able to enter the University of Leeds, where he studied from 1911 to 1914 without finishing his degree.

As a poet Read made his debut with Songs of Chaos (1915). It connected him with the Imagists, who believed that a hard, clear image was essential to verse. However, Read's poems were seldom typical for the movement, and his early career was cut short by the First World War. He served three years as a Second Lieutenant in the Yorkshire Regiment, fighting in France and Belgium. "Life has never seemed quite so cheap nor nature so mutilated," he wrote in a letter to his future wife Evelyn Roff. ('Herbert Read and the Great War' by Hugh Cecil, in Herbert Read Reassessed, edited by David Goodway, 1998, p. 34) After being badly lacerated by barbed wire, he was sent back to England for recuperation.  In April 1917 he returned to the front. Read was promoted to captain and in 1918 he received the Military Cross for capturing a German officer and the Distinguished Service Order for leading a successful retreat.

During the war, Read founded with Frank Rutter the journal Arts and Letters, which attacked conservative values and published texts by such writers as Wyndham Lewis and T.S. Eliot. After demobilization, Read worked first at the Ministry of Labour and then as an assistant principal of the Treasury, London.

From 1922 to 1931 Read was the assistant keeper of ceramics and stained glass at Victoria and Albert Museum. In London literary life, Read become a close friend of T.S. Eliot; they had first met in 1917. He contributed to the Criterion (1922-39) and he was many years a regular art critic for the Listener. He also edited various anthologies and works by T.E. Hulme, A.R. Orage, Kropotkin, and C.G.Jung – the psychoanalytical theories of Freud he rejected. The Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, who befriended Read in the 1930s, described him as "strikingly tall, with tousled hair, sallow face, mongoloid high cheeckbones, and soft shy eyes. . . . I wondered if he was from some ancient Scythian stock, descended from people who had wandered to the West." (Conversations in Bloomsbury by Mulk Raj Anand, new revised edition, 2011, p. 140)

Read's first major work of literary criticism was Reason and Romanticism (1926), in which he started his lifelong wrestling between the antiromantic 'reason' and 'classicism' and the claims of 'emotion'. He was the editor of the Burlington Magazine (1933-39), succeeding Fry, and from 1940 an editor of English Master Painters series. Wordsworth (1930) was based on his Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. From the 1930s Read held various academic posts and also devoted much of his time to public affairs and art administration. In 1933 he helped organize the Unit 1 exhibition of contemporary art and the surrealist exhibition of 1936. Read frequently championed new artistic movements, earning an international reputation as a defender of modern art. Especially his writings about the sculptor Henry Moore had a great impact on the understanding of his work and British modernism on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 1930s Read lived in Hampstead, where Henry Moore was his neighbour. This community, which Reid famously called as "a nest of gentle artists," also attracted such figures asBarbara Hepwort, Ben Nicholson, and Paul Nash; all they were close neighbours of intertwined lives and loves. Read recalled the Hampstead period the happiest of his life.

From 1931 to 1933 Read was Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University. It is likely Read would have stayed a longer time at the university, but following his affair with a music lecturer, Margaret Ludwig, which turned from a private matter into a public secret, he was obliged to resign. After a stint as a teacher of art at the University of Liverpool (1935-36), he was the Leon fellow at the University of London (1940-42), and Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1953-54).

When England was drawn into World War II, Read was responsive to the ideology of the People's War, which Evelyn Waugh saw as an attempted to smuggle revolution into the national struggle for survival. During the early period of the Battle of Britain, Read took a part in a discussion panel on poetry, organized by George Orwell, who was at that time working at the Indian Department of the BBC. The discussion was broadcast from a studio in a former Oxford Street bargain basement.

In accordance with his anarchist political beliefs, Read insisted in To Hell with Culture (1941) that "cultural institutions imposed on the masses are so much dead weight—to hell with such culture." Nevertheless, it did not prevent him fromsuggesting that there should be official war poets. After the war Read cofounded with Roland Penrose and Eduardo Paolozzi the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. Its aim was to down barriers between different artistic disciplines, to serve as "an adult play-centre" and "a source of vitality and daring experiment".

"The modern work of art, as I have said, is a symbol. The symbol, by its nature, is only intelligible to the initiated (though it may still appeal mysteriously to the uninitiated, so long as they allow it to enter their unconscious). The people can only understand the image, and even this they distrust in its eidetic purity, for even their vision is conventional. It does not seem that the contradiction which exists between the aristocratic function of art and the democratic structure of modern society can ever be resolved. But both may wear the cloak of humanism, the one for shelter, the other for display. The sensitive artist knows that a bitter wind is blowing." (from The Philosophy of Modern Art, 1952)

In a series of books, such as The Meaning of Art (1930), Art Now (1933), and Art and Society (1937) Read argued for 'organic form' and the need for art in education. Read had adopted ideas from Freud, Jung, Hegel, Schiller, and Marx. He had developed disgust for the ugliness of industrialism, and denied that there is a "necessary connection between beauty and function". (Aesthetics, Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism by Monroe C. Beardsley, 1981, p. 317) English Prose Style (1928) reflected Read's disillusionment with the post-war era and its false splendors.He praised the the virtues of simplicity, even if it was often dry and flat — at least it conveyed a feeling of truthfulness.

When Read abandoned his earlier adherence to Marxist socialism in Poetry and Anarchism (1938), it was a deep disappointment for his leftist friends. Read was one of the first writers to practice psychoanalytical criticism. In Collected Essays in Literary Criticism (1938) he saw depth psychology necessary for understanding literary creation. "I would say myself that there is no real contradiction between art, conceived as design, and the unconscious. The unconscious does, in fact, reveal design. Not only is the dream, when understood. a dramatic unity, but even in its plastic manifestations the unconscious possesses a principle of organization."

Although Read wrote his essays in an accessible, often didactic style, his poetry was deemed inaccessible by some critics. Noteworthy, despited his acclaimed books about art, Read thought himself primarily a poet. From the beginning, he was committed to modernism but with romantic sensitivities. He used striking images and complicated patterns of thought, the tone is editative or dramatic. Among his best pieces are 'The Analysis of Love' (1923), 'The End of a War' (1933), and 'A World within a War' (1943). His Collected Poems (1946) influenced the New Apocalypse poets of the 1940s.

Read's allegorical, fantastic novel The Green Child (1935), about a journey through the self, is considered his most celebrated prose piece. Read completed the work while living in Hampstead. "One cannot be deliberately glorious," said Kenneth Rexroth in his introduction to the novel. "But certainly the book is one of the most sustained products of conscious rapture in our literature." The hero of this Jungian tale is an Englishman called Oliver, who becomes Dr. Olivero, dictator of the South American Republic of Roncador. When his ideal State fails, he fakes his own assassination and returns to England. There he rescues a green-skinned woman from her sadistic husband. She leads him back to her world via the millstream from wich she emerged. When Read wrote the book, he had not read much Jung. The Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist himself interpreted the work as referring to the Philosopher's stone.

His last years Read lived at Stonegrave house, Yorkshire, near to where he had been born. He was knighted in 1953 by Winston Churchill "for services to literature." His willingness to accept a knighthood was a shock to other anarchists. He once remarked that "it is perfectly possible, even normal, to live a life of contradictions." Read received several awards, including Erasmus Prize (1966) for contributions to European culture. He was president of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, president of the British Society of Aesthetics, and trustee of the Tate Gallery, among other positions. Read died on June 12, 1968. He was married two times, first with Evelyn Roff; they had one son. After divorce Read married in 1936 the musician Margaret Ludwig; they had four children, one of whom is the well known novelist Piers Paul Read. For years the Institute of Contemporary Arts held an annual Herbert Read Lecture. Salman Rushdie, who had been "sentenced to death" by Ayatollah Khomeini, was asked to deliver the 1990 lecture. Because he was living with the threat of murder, the lecture, entitled 'Is Nothing Sacred,' was read by Harold Pinter. Rushdie argued that in an open society no ideas, texts, even people could be ring-fenced and  given the immunity from challenges of all sorts.  

For further reading: 'Herbert Edward Read, 1893-1968' by Stephen Mark Dobbs, in The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Educational Thinkers, edited by Joy A. Palmer Cooper; advisory editor, David E. Cooper (2016); A British Anarchist Tradition: Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Colin Ward by Carissa Honeywell (2011); Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean (2000); Herbert Read Reassessed, ed. by David Goodway (1998); Herbert Read, ed. by David Goodway (1997); Herbert Read, ed. by B. Read and D. Thistlewood (1993); The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read by James King (1990); Herbert Read by David Thistlewood (1984); Wenn die Kunst stirbt by Wilhelm Hortmann (1976); Herbert Read by George Woodcock (1972); A Certain Order by W. Harder (1971); Herbert Read, ed. by Robin Skelton (1970); Herbert Read, ed. by Henry Treece (1969); A Checklist of the Herbert Read Archive by H. Gerwing and M.W. Pidgeon (1969); Herbert Read by F. Berry (1953)

Selected works:

  • Songs of Chaos, 1915
  • Naked Warriors, 1919
  • Ecloques, 1919
  • Mutations of the Phoenix, 1923
  • ed. Speculations by T.WE. Hulme, 1924
  • English Poetry, 1924 (with B. Rackham)
  • In Retreat, 1925
  • Reason and Romanticism, 1926
  • English Stained Glass, 1926
  • Collected Poems, 1926
  • English Prose Style, 1928
  • Phases of English Poetry, 1928
  • The Sense of Glory, 1929
  • Staffordshire Pottery Figures, 1929
  • Julien Benda and the New Humanism, 1930
  • Wordsworth, 1930
  • The Meaning of Art, 1930 (first Am. ed. The Anatomy of Art, 1932)
  • Ambush, 1930
  • Form in Modern Poetry, 1932
  • Art Now, 1933
  • The Innocent Eye, 1933
  • Art and Industry, 1934
  • Henry Moore, Sculptor, An Appreciation, 1934
  • Essential Communism, 1935
  • ed.: Selected Essays and Critical Writings by A.R. Orage, 1935 (with D. Saurat)
  • The Green Child, 1935
  • Surrealism, 1935
  • Five on Revolutionary Art, 1935 (ed. by B. Rea)
  • Poems, 1914-1934, 1935
  • Art and Society, 1936
  • In Defence of Shelley and Other Essays, 1936
  • Art and Society, 1937
  • Collected Essays in Literary Criticism, 1938 (as The Nature of Literature, 1956)
  • Poetry and Anarchism, 1938
  • Annals of Innocence and Experience, 1940
  • Thirty-Five Poems, 1940
  • To Hell with Culture, 1941 (republished 2002)
  • Education Through Art, 1943
  • The Politics of the Unpolitical, 1943
  • The Education of Free Men, 1944
  • Paul Nash, 1944
  • A Coat of Many Colours, 1945
  • Collected Poems, 1946
  • The Grass Roots of Art, 1947
  • Klee, 1948
  • The Psychopathology of Reaction in the Arts, 1948
  • Education for Peace, 1949
  • Gauguin, 1949
  • Coleridge as Critic, 1949
  • Existentialism, Marxism and Anarchism, 1949
  • Contemporary British Art, 1951
  • Art and Evolution of Man, 1951
  • The Philosophy of Modern Art, 1952
  • The True Voice of Feeling, 1953
  • ed.: The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, 1953-1979 (20 vols., with M. Fordham)
  • Anarchy and Order, 1954
  • Icon and Idea, 1955
  • Moon's Farm and Poems Mostly Elegiac, 1955
  • The Art of Sculpture, 1956
  • The Tenth Muse, 1957
  • A Concise History of Modern Painting, 1959
  • Kandinski, 1959
  • The Parliament of Women, 1960
  • The Forms of Things Unknown, 1960
  • Creative Arts in American Education, 1961 (with T. Munro)
  • Truth is More Sacred, 1961 (with Edward Dahlberg)
  • Aristotle's Mother, 1961
  • A Letter to a Young Painter, 1962
  • ed.: The Acanthus History of Sculpture, 1962 - (4 vols., with H.D. Molesworth)
  • Lord Byron at the Opera, 1963
  • The Contrary Experience, 1963
  • To Hell with Culture, and Other Essays on Art and Society, 1963
  • Selected Writings, 1963
  • A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, 1964
  • Henry Moore, 1965
  • The Origins of Form in Art, 1965
  • Collected Poems, 1966
  • ed.: Encyclopedia of the Arts, 1966 (rev. as The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists, 1985)
  • Poetry and Experience, 1967
  • Art and Alienation, 1967
  • ed.: Selected Works of Miguel de Unamuno, 1967- (with others)
  • Arp, 1968
  • The Meaning of Art, 1968 (rev. ed.)
  • Essays in Literary Criticism, 1969
  • The Cult of Sincerity, 1969
  • The Correspondence of Sir Herbert Read, 1969 (pub. in S. Berne's The Unconscious Victorous and Other Stories)
  • The Redemption of the Robot, 1970
  • Pursuits and Verities, 1983
  • A One-Man Manifesto and Other Writings for Freedom Press, 1994
  • Between the Riccall and the Rye: Selected Writings on Ryedale from Herbert Read's Poetry and Prose, 2011

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