Herbert Read  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Sir Herbert Edward Read, DSO, MC (18931968) was an English anarchist poet, and critic of literature and art.


Early life

He was born in Kirkbymoorside in North Yorkshire. His studies at the University of Leeds were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, during which he served with the Green Howards in France, where he received both the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order and reached the rank of Captain. During the war, Read founded with Frank Rutter the journal Arts and Letters, one of the first literary periodicals to publish work by T. S. Eliot.

Early work

His 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, 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 (e.g., The True Voice of Feeling: Studies in English Romantic Poetry, 1953). He published a novel, The Green Child. He contributed to the Criterion (19221939) and he was many years a regular art critic for the Listener.

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 -- as well as 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 and have been used to write English with elegance and distinction.

Art criticism

However, 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, with contributions from André Breton, Hugh Skyes Davies, Paul Eluard, and Georges Hugnet. He also served as a trustee of the Tate Gallery and as a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum (19221939), as well as co-founding the Institute of Contemporary Arts with Roland Penrose in 1947.

Anarchism and philosophical outlook

Politically Read regarded himself as an anarchist, albeit in the English quietist tradition of Edward Carpenter and William Morris. Nevertheless, he was knighted by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1953 for "services to literature."

Dividing Read's writings on politics from those on art and culture is difficult as he saw art, culture and politics as a single congruent expression on human consciousness. His total work amounts to over 1,000 published titles.

To Hell With Culture was republished by Routledge in 2002 and deals specifically with Read's disdain for the term culture and expands on his anarchist view of the artist as artisan, as well as presenting a major analysis of the work of Eric Gill.

In his philosophical outlook, Read was close to the European Idealist traditions represented by Friedrich von Schelling, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, believing that reality as it is experienced by the human mind was as much a product of the human mind as any external or objective actuality. In other words, the mind is not a camera recording the reality it perceives through the eyes; it is also a projector throwing out its own reality. This meant that art was not, as many Marxists believed, simply a product of a bourgeois society, but a psychological process that had evolved simultaneously to the evolution of consciousness. Art was, therefore, a biological phenomenon, a view that frequently pitted Read against Marxist critics such as Anthony Blunt in the 1930s. Read, in this respect, was influenced by developments in German art psychology. His Idealist background also led Read towards an interest in psychoanalysis, particularly in the theories of Carl Gustav Jung. Read became a pioneer in the English-speaking world in the use of psychoanalysis as a tool for art and literary criticism.

Read was probably the first English writer to take an interest in the writings of the French Existentialists -- as early as 1949 -- particularly those of Jean-Paul Sartre. Although Read never described himself as an existentialist, he did acknowledge that his theories often found support amongst those who did. Read perhaps was the closest England came to an existentialist theorist of the European tradition.

Death and legacy

Following his death in 1968, Read was neglected, arguably due to the increasing predominance of social theories of art, including Marxism, in academia. His work continued to be read by some followers and academics. In the 1990s there was a revival of interest in him following a major exhibition in 1993 at Leeds City Art Gallery. Since then more of his work has been republished and there was a Herbert Read Conference, at Tate Britain in June 2004.

Read was a friend and colleague of Frank McEwen, and it was due in part to his suggestion that the younger man applied for the directorship of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

Quotes and excerpts

  • "Art is an attempt to create pleasing forms."
  • 'Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived.

But you my brother and my ghost, if you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.' -To a Conscript of 1940<ref>To A Conscript Of 1940 by Herbert Read</ref>

From To Hell With Culture:

  • "A democracy does not despise or suppress that faculty which the totalitarian socialist makes so elusive – his thinking or rational faculty. The libertarian socialist must also plan, but his plans, apart from being tentative and experimental, will make the widest use of all human faculties.
  • "The libertarian planner must also remember that cities are built for citizens, and the houses and buildings will be inhabited, not by ciphers, but by human beings with sensations and feelings, and that these human beings will be unhappy unless they can freely express themselves in their environment.
  • "For it is upon personal happiness that society ultimately and collectively depends."

From Poetry and Anarchism:

  • "In order to create it is necessary to destroy; and the agent of destruction in society is the poet. I believe that the poet is necessarily an anarchist, and that he must oppose all organized conceptions of the State, not only those which we inherit from the past, but equally those which are imposed on people in the name of the future."


Select List of Works by Herbert Read

  • Arp (The World of Art Library) (1968)
  • Art and Alienation (1967)
  • My Anarchism (1966)
  • To Hell With Culture (1963)
  • Eric Gill (1963)
  • Introduction to Hubris: A Study of Pride by Pierre Stephen Robert Payne (1960)
  • The Tenth Muse (1957)
  • Icon and Idea (1955)
  • Education Through Art (1954)
  • Revolution & Reason (1953)
  • The Art of Sculpture (1951)
  • Existentialism, Marxism and Anarchism (1949)
  • The Grass Roots of Art (1937)
  • Art and Society (1945)
  • Education Through Art (1943)
  • The Paradox of Anarchism (1941)
  • Philosophy of Anarchism (1940)
  • Anarchy & Order; Poetry & Anarchism (1938)
  • Collected Essays in Literary Criticism (1938)
  • Art and Industry (1934)
  • Unit One (1966), editor
  • Art Now (1933)
  • Wordsworth (1932)
  • English Prose Style (1931)
  • Naked Warriors (1919)

Writings on Herbert Read

  • Goodway, David, (ed.), Herbert Read Reassessed (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998)
  • King, James, Herbert Read - The Last Modern (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990)
  • Paraskos, Michael, (ed.), Re-Reading Read: Critical Views on Herbert Read (London: Freedom Press, 2007)
  • Read, Benedict and David Thistlewood (eds.), Herbert Read: A British Vision of World Art (London: Lund Humphries, 1993)
  • Thistlewood, David, Formelessness and Form (London: Routledge, 1984)
  • Woodcock, George, Herbert Read: the Stream and the Source (London: Faber and Faber, 1972)

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Herbert Read" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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