Sir Herbert Edward Read, DSO, MC ( 4 December 1893 – 12 June 1968) was an English anarchist, poet and literary critic, best known for numerous books on art, which included influential volumes on the role of art in education.
Read was co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. He was one of the earliest English writers to take notice of existentialism.
The son of a farmer, Read was born at Muscoates near Nunnington, about four miles south of Kirkbymoorside in the North Riding of Yorkshire.
His studies at the University of Leeds were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, during which he served with the Green Howards in France.
He received the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, and reached the rank of captain. During the war, Read founded the journal Arts and Letters with Frank Rutter, one of the first literary periodicals to publish work by T. S. Eliot.
Read’s first volume of poetry was Songs of Chaos, self-published in 1915. His second collection, published in 1919, was called Naked Warriors, and drew on his experiences fighting in the trenches of the First World War. His work, which shows the influence of Imagism and of the Metaphysical poets, was mainly in free verse.
His Collected Poems appeared in 1946. As a critic of literature, Read mainly concerned himself with the English Romantic poets (for example, The True Voice of Feeling: Studies in English Romantic Poetry, 1953) but was also a close observer of imagism.
He published a novel, The Green Child. He contributed to the Criterion (1922–39) and he was for many years a regular art critic for The Listener.
While W. B. Yeats chose many poets of the Great War generation for The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), Read arguably stood out among his peers by virtue of the 17-page excerpt (nearly half of the entire work) of his The End of a War (Faber & Faber, 1933).
Read was also interested in the art of writing. He cared deeply about style and structure and summarized his views in English Prose Style (1928), a primer on, and a philosophy of, good writing. The book is considered one of the best on the foundations of the English language, and how those foundations can be and have been used to write English with elegance and distinction.
Read was (and remains) better known as an art critic. He was a champion of modern British artists such as Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
He became associated with Nash’s contemporary arts group Unit One. Read was professor of fine arts at the University of Edinburgh (1931–33) and editor of the trend-setting Burlington Magazine (1933–38). He was one of the organisers of the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 and editor of the book Surrealism, published in 1936, which included contributions from André Breton, Hugh Sykes Davies, Paul Éluard, and Georges Hugnet.
He also served as a trustee of the Tate Gallery and as a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum (1922–39), as well as co-founding the Institute of Contemporary Arts with Roland Penrose in 1947. He was one of the earliest English writers to take notice of existentialism, and was strongly influenced by proto-existentialist thinker Max Stirner.
From 1953 to 1954 Read served as the Norton Professor at Harvard University. For the academic year 1964–65 and again in 1965, he was a Fellow on the faculty at the Center for Advanced Studies of Wesleyan University.
Read’s conception of poetry was influenced by his mentors T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, Marianne Moore, W. C. Williams believing ‘true poetry was never speech but always a song’s , quoted with the rest of his definition ‘What is a Poem ‘ in his essay, 1926, of that name, (in his Endword to his Collected Poems of 1966). Read’s ‘Phases of English Poetry ‘ was an evolutionary study seeking to answer metaphysical rather than pragmatic questions
Read’s definitive guide to poetry however, was his ‘ Form in Modern Poetry’ which he published in 1932. In 1951 A. S. Collins the literary critic said of Read: “In his poetry he burnt the white ecstasy of intellect, terse poetry of austere beauty retaining much of his earliest Imagist style.” A style much evident in Read’s earliest collection Eclogues 1914-18.
Following his death in 1968, Read was arguably neglected due to the increasing predominance in academia of theories of art, including Marxism, which discounted his ideas.
Yet his work continued to have influence. It was through Read’s writings on anarchism that Murray Bookchin was inspired in the mid-1960s to explore the connections between anarchism and ecology. In 1971, a collection of his writings on anarchism and politics was republished, Anarchy and Order, with an introduction by Howard Zinn.
In the 1990s there was a revival of interest in him following a major exhibition in 1993 at Leeds City Art Gallery and the publication of a collection of his anarchist writings, A One-Man Manifesto and other writings for Freedom Press, edited by David Goodway.
Since then more of his work has been republished and there was a Herbert Read Conference, at Tate Britain in June 2004. The library at the Cyprus College of Art is named after him, as is the art gallery at the University for the Creative Arts at Canterbury. Until the 1990s the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London staged an annual Herbert Read Lecture, which included well known speakers such as Salman Rushdie.
On 11 November 1985, Read was among 16 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.”
A 1937 reading by Read lasting seven minutes and titled The Surrealist Object can be heard on the audiobook CD Surrealism Reviewed, published in 2002.
He was the father of the well-known writer Piers Paul Read, the BBC documentary maker John Read, and the art historian Ben Read.