Burlington Bertie

Julian Symons

  • The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read by James King
    Weidenfeld, 364 pp, £25.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 297 81042 1

In old age Herbert Read wrote an uncharacteristically tart bit of verse, perhaps after a quarrel with his second wife Ludo:

Tired of this lonely life
Gone to find another wife.

                                              HR

Couldn’t find one. Shot myself
You’ll find my body on the larder shelf.

The absurdity yet curious felicity of that larder shelf is echoed in a career full of contradictions. Herbert Read was a loving father often felt by his family to behave in a way almost clinically detached, a believer in anarchism who accepted a knighthood, a lover of his native Yorkshire who found it impossible to live there contentedly, a man in permanent pursuit of the True, the Good and the Beautiful in all the arts who was never sure he had caught those elusive butterflies. He became famous, not, as he had hoped, as an imaginative writer, but as the champion propagandist of the new in art, in constant demand as a lecturer on everything connected with visual art, so that he turned into what he called ‘a sort of wandering Jew of British Culture’. Such fame left him deeply discontented.

In manner gentle and uncontentious, Herbert Read might be called a saint of art and literature. He might also be called ridiculous. Nobody was more warmly encouraging to any young writer or painter who promised to transcend the bounds of everyday life. In the Forties he was excited by the rattling rhetoric of the Apocalyptic poets, believing that the day of Audens and MacNeices was over, that poetry ‘must now be positive and prophetic’, and discovering those qualities in the work of Henry Treece and J. F. Hendry. For him, apocalypse was always in the air or round the corner, and he had ‘something in the nature of an apocalyptic experience’ when he came across a drawing by a five-year-old girl in which he instantly recognised a mandala, ‘a primordial symbol of psychic unity’, and reflected that there was still hope for civilisation in the common human heritage of symbols and dreams. Only a saint or an idiot would have been moved by the drawing (reproduced in this biography) to such grandiose and windy reflections. In Read’s case the qualities were not mutually exclusive.

He was born in 1893, the eldest of three boys and a girl in the family of a tenant farmer and his wife Eliza, in Yorkshire’s Vale of Pickering. His childhood was spent at Muscoates Grange, where his father farmed nearly two hundred acres, rode to hounds, and with his wife went to hunt balls. Herbert, who for the only time in his life was called Bertie, remembered the period as idyllic when he wrote about the farm, the orchard, the cow pasture and the blacksmith’s shop in the delicate, charming fragment of autobiography The Innocent Eye. This life changed abruptly at the age of nine, when his father died after a riding accident. The family was left almost without money, Eliza went to work first as a housekeeper, later as laundry manageress and hostel matron in Leeds. The two elder boys were sent away, and Herbert was a boarder at the Crossley and Porter Orphan Home and School in Halifax. At 15 he became a bank clerk, at 19 entered Leeds University, where he encountered modern art in the form of pictures by Gauguin, Wilson Steer, Augustus John, William Nicholson, and woodcuts by Kandinsky, collected by the University’s Vice-Chancellor. Frank Rutter, curator of Leeds Art Gallery, completed the boy’s artistic education. He had already begun to write poems, in free verse influenced by Imagism. Now he became a partisan of the English near-abstract movement Vorticism, and the drawings reproduced here show him as a reasonably competent pasticheur of Vorticist lines and angles.

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