Leeds University Library

Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968)

Herbert Read

Student, 1912-1915

Honorary DLitt, 1932

The son of a farmer in the Yorkshire dales, Herbert Read left school at 16 and worked as a clerk in Leeds until a legacy enabled him to enrol at the University. He studied law and economics, while his passion for art and literature flourished at the Leeds Arts Club. He went straight from the University to fight in World War I, emerging in 1918 as a decorated hero (DSO, MC), committed pacifist and published poet.

His reputation as a poet and critic grew in post-war London, and he made lifelong friendships with leading writers, above all TS Eliot. As a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, he published widely, on literature, art history and the contemporary visual arts.

Read briefly became Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University from 1931 to 1933, but soon returned to London, championing the work of young artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth (both from Yorkshire) and Ben Nicholson.

Read's interests extended beyond British Modernism to contemporary European and Scandinavian art, of which he was the leading advocate and interpreter in Britain. He was a personal friend of Picasso, Man Ray and Schwitters, adviser to Peggy Guggenheim as collector, and promoted Surrealism as an expression of individuality. He wrote influential works on the role of art in education, industry and society, co-founding the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Despite regarding himself as an anarchist, he accepted a knighthood in 1953.

Read's Yorkshire origins stayed with him and he made his family home at Stonegrave House, near York. He renewed his involvement with the University in the 1950s by helping to establish the Gregory Fellowships, forming the distinguished appointing committee with his friends TS Eliot and Henry Moore.

Read shaped the British art scene profoundly from the 1930s to the 1960s. His unassuming manner belied his tireless energy and progressive thinking. He died at Stonegrave, surrounded by books and his friends' artwork.

Our acquisition of Read's 14,000-volume library from his family in 1996 was generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It includes many items with unique personal associations and numerous rarities. Part of his personal archive went to a Canadian library in the 1960s, but he retained the items that meant most to him, such as the manuscript of his only novel The Green Child. All this material is now in Leeds University Library.