Herbert Read by Howard Coster, 1934.
National Portrait Gallery. Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

Herbert Read


Herbert Read (1893–1968): English poet and literary critic, and one of the most influential art critics of the twentieth century. Son of a tenant farmer, he spent his first years in rural Yorkshire; at sixteen, he went to work as a bank clerk, then studied law and economics at Leeds University; later still, he joined the Civil Service, working first in the Ministry of Labour and then at the Treasury. During his years of service in WW1, he rose to be a captain in a Yorkshire regiment, the Green Howards (his war poems were published in Naked Warriors, 1919); and when on leave to receive the Military Cross in 1917, he arranged to dine with TSE. This launched a life-long friendship which he was to recall in ‘T.S.E. – A Memoir’, in T. S. Eliot: The Man and his Work, ed. Allen Tate (1966). He co-founded the journal Art & Letters, 1917–20, and wrote essays too for A. R. Orage, editor of the New Age. In 1922 he was appointed a curator in the department of ceramics and glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum; and in later years worked for the publishers Routledge & Kegan Paul, and as editor of the Burlington Magazine, 1933–9. By 1923 he was writing for the Criterion and was to become one of Eliot’s foremost contributors and a reliable adviser. In 1924 he edited T. E. Hulme’s posthumous Speculations. His later works include Art Now (1933); the introduction to the catalogue of the International Surrealist Exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries, London, 1936; Art and Society (1937); Education through Art (1943), and A Concise History of Modern Painting (1959). In 1947 he founded (with Roland Penrose) the Institute of Contemporary Art; and he was knighted in 1953.

Eliot, Read was to recall (perhaps only half in jest), was ‘rather like a gloomy priest presiding over my affections and spontaneity’. According to Stephen Spender, Eliot said ‘of the anarchism of his friend Herbert Read, whom he loved and esteemed very highly: “Sometimes when I read Herbert’s inflammatory pamphlets I have the impression that I am reading the pronouncements of an old-fashioned nineteenth-century liberal”’ (‘Remembering Eliot’, The Thirties and After [1978], 251). Joseph Chiari recalled TSE saying of Read: ‘Ah, there is old Herbie, again; he can’t resist anything new!’ See further Read, ‘Eliot, The Leader’, Yorkshire Post, 5 Jan. 1965; James King, The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read (1990); Herbert Read Reassessed, ed. by D. Goodway (1998). Jason Harding, in ‘The Criterion’: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-War Britain (2002), calculates that Read wrote 68 book reviews, four articles, and five poems for the Criterion.