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Soldier, poet, anarchist, knight: Who was Herbert Read? 1

a book cover with a coiled metal sheet against a yellow background

Art and Industry by Herbert Read

The life of an anarchist, art critic and poet is unpicked in a new exhibition at the University of Leeds’ Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery

Soldier, art historian, poet, literary critic, author, curator, anarchist philosopher, Knight of the Realm, Trustee of the Tate; taken together the many interests and achievements of Sir Herbert Read reads like the definitive tick list of a cultured man of the twentieth century.

Read went on to be one of the most important cultural figures of the day, co-founding the Institute of Contemporary Arts with Roland Penrose. But who was Herbert Read? A new exhibition at Leeds University, where Read’s considerable archive now resides, tries to answer this question by unpicking his story with the help of art and his own collection.

Guest-curated by collage artist Stephen Sutcliffe and arts organisation Pavilion, Art in an Electric Atmosphere: The Library and Archive of Herbert Read explores the contradictions in the Read story, with the help of more than 165 items.

“I have a fascination with biography, especially texts on contradictory characters,” says Sutcliffe “Read was an anarchist and a knight of the realm. He came from farming stock to become one of the most revered cultural commentators of his day.”

a sepia tinted photo of soldier officers outside a Nissan hut

Herbert Read in a group of soldiers.

a photo of the back of postcard with signatures on it

A postcard from Picasso to Read

The son of a farmer, Read grew up near Nunnington in the North Riding of Yorkshire, left school at 16 and worked as a clerk in Leeds until a legacy enabled him to enrol at Leeds University. He studied law and economics, while his passion for art and literature flourished at the Leeds Arts Club.

Like many men of his generation he went straight from the University to fight in the First World War (with Yorkshire regiment the Green Howards) emerging in 1918 as a decorated hero (DSO, MC) with rank of captain. By this time he was also a committed pacifist and published poet.

During the war, Read also founded the journal Arts & Letters with Frank Rutter, one of the first literary periodicals to publish work by T. S. Eliot.

From the 1930s to the 1960s he shaped the British art scene, founding the ICA with Roland Penrose, championing modernism and artists like Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, publishing books, expanding his ideas on anarchism and existentialism and writing literary criticism and poetry. When he accepted a Knighthood in 1953 he was ostracised by most of his former colleagues in the Anarchist movement, but throughout his creative journey an unassuming manner belied his tireless energy and progressive thinking.

He died at Stonegrave in Yorkshire in 1968 surrounded by his books and his friends’ artwork. His 14,000-volume library was acquired by the University in 1996.

a double photo of Herbert Read holding an abstract sculpture

Herbert Read with a Naum Gabo sculpture.

a black and white photo of a chimp making an abstract painting

Congo the chimp at the ICA. The chimpanzee artist was the subject of one of the gallery’s most notorious exhibitions.

The exhibition, giving a unique glimpse into the private life of this multi-talented man, displays everything from the mundane, such as a 1964 receipt for a domestic dishwasher, to the extraordinary, like a postcard sent to Read by Pablo Picasso.

A strong thread throughout Read’s life is the connections he made, and many of Read’s close friends, allies and collaborators are represented in the exhibition through photographs, letters and ephemera, including T.S. Eliot, Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Peggy Guggenheim, and more.

Central to the exhibition is a new projected video work by the Yorkshire-born Sutcliffe, based on the covers of Anarchy, a monthly journal published in Britain throughout the 1960s which Read collected and occasionally contributed to.

“I was born in the year that Herbert Read died,” adds Sutcliffe. “My only other connections with him are that I’m from Yorkshire and also took a route into culture from an unlikely background. His archive held at Leeds University Library Special Collections has a vast array of items from his personal and professional life.

“I wondered at such an active and diverse life. It soon became clear that the best way to represent his life is in collage form, which is handy because that’s the way I like to work.”

a magazine cover featuring a blue featureless figure apart from an open mouth full of teeth

A cover of Anarchy Magazine

a contact sheet of black and white images of a man and a dog

Herbert Read with dog Hector

Art in an Electric Atmosphere: The Library and Archive of Herbert Read is at the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery until August 1, 2020. Entry is free. For more details and opening times, visit library.leeds.ac.uk/galleries


Treasures of the Brotherton

Leeds, West Yorkshire

The Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery is a public exhibition space housed by the University of Leeds, rooted in Yorkshire and open to the world. The Gallery is the public face of the exceptional Special Collections held at the University of Leeds.

One comment on “Soldier, poet, anarchist, knight: Who was Herbert Read?

  1. Judith Martin on

    No mention of Herbert Read’s novel (his only one I think) The Green Child. Fascinating and other-worldly, well worth rediscovering.


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