- 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.
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.
Vol. 12 No. 14 · 26 July 1990
Julian Symons (LRB, 14 June) may well have written 27 detective stories, as your ‘contributors notes’ insist, but it ill-serves him to rewrite James King’s life of Herbert Read in the disguise of a review of it. Surely he might have detected better things in Read than this miserable catalogue of insufficiencies? It really doesn’t do to write Read down as saint and idiot, when he was plainly neither; nor to re-invent a ‘Clerical Read’ to explain away the fact that Read could sometimes write good plain English. Read’s best work both invoked and embodied a poetic vision, not to say that ‘sense of glory’ that meant so much to him – this Julian Symons might grudgingly concede: but he responded with a sense of duty to the conditions of his time and those of his immediate culture. He made himself, in a fully European sense, a responsible English intellectual. In so doing, he redefined the order and scope of sensibility that this seemed to require. He then set about an arduous process of bridge-building, not only across to the Continent (a task even now only half-accomplished), but between the English literary imagination, still now as complacently insular as it ever was, and the constructive visual world of the Modern Movement in the arts, design and architecture.
That Julian Symons is a little vague on this point might be inferred from his reference to ‘the Design Research Unit’ as though this was a public institution like the ICA or the Design Council: in fact, it was a commercial outfit. The bow-tie (if Read must be discussed in such terms) was less the insignia of cultural dandyism than de rigueur among tie-fanciers as un-dandified as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Nor would Read, alert to the suggestiveness of mandalas, fail to be equally aware of the hanging necktie as male genital display, a form of exhibitionism he could probably do without. Jungian hang-ups were common enough at that time, and are still valued literary property (as in the work of Peter Redgrove).
Herbert Read certainly did suffer one substantial handicap: that of being largely right about many of the significant issues of his and our day (as has since become clear enough, and not only in Eastern Europe). This may have reinforced such tendency to loneliness as he already possessed. If he slipped up on some of his lesser judgments, perhaps Julian Symons has occasionally done that too. I suspect that Read’s mistakes tended, at least, to proceed from two positive characteristics: a natural generosity, and a wish to approach issues with more of himself than intellectual perspicacity as such. He was not a sharpie, not, in fact, a scrupulous scholarly ‘intellectual’ but it is not quite right to call his responses ‘woolly’. ‘Accommodating’, perhaps.
There are then interesting things about Read’s reputation that go unmentioned, one of which is the Read industry in the States and Canada. This shows no signs of flagging. My brother (Louis Adeane) was doing a book on Read, leading to a lengthy correspondence now in the archive. As a result, he had numerous letters of enquiry from would-be thesis and dissertation writers. The presence of George Woodcock in Vancouver is surely not enough to account for this ongoing interest. Perhaps Julian Symons could do some detecting on this one.
Finally, it is surely reasonable to ask of a review that it say whether a book is worth buying or getting from the library. A further requirement might be to estimate its value against that of existing alternatives (in this case, the studies by Woodcock and Thistlewood). Julian Symons seems too absorbed in putting Read down to extend to his readers these quite ordinary critical courtesies.
St Angeau, Mansle, France
Vol. 12 No. 15 · 16 August 1990
Norman Potter (Letters, 26 July) should read what I said more closely before writing that I found in Herbert Read only a ‘miserable catalogue of insufficiencies’. I praised him as a gentle man, for the most part saintly, a writer of cool orderly prose, the man who helped to purge the British of their inter-war artistic insularity. I can’t understand what he means by saying I rewrote the biography I was reviewing, and ‘re-invented’ Clerical Read, a term I used to emphasise the division between this aspect of him and Innocent Eye Read. Is it suggested that the idea of Clerical Read came from somebody else?
He misreads me again when he suggests I would agree that Read’s ‘best work both invoked and embodied a poetic vision’. On the contrary: Read’s poetry, like his novel The Green Child, seems to have strained for a vision he never achieved. Hence his turn at one point to automatic writing, and his admiration for the disconnections of Surrealism. Even the war poems move from effective realism to writing pitched too high: so that his fellow soldiers become ‘my men, my modern Christs’, for whose souls the poet will cry ‘someday in the loneliest wilderness’. In short, no agreement is possible between those who think like Potter that Read was a fine artist, and those like me who regard his achievement as that of making a generation look freshly at visual art and the new commercial artefacts that sprang from it. That should not be taken as denigration. As to my failure to say whether James King’s biography was ‘worth buying or getting from the library’, I said it was factually adequate, well-organised, impartial, clumsily written. Whether or not it is worth reading depends, obviously, on your interest in Read.
Finally, a couple of marginal notes. Piers Paul Read has recently told of the decision not to give King access to his father’s letters to the family. A different decision might have made Read seem less a purely public figure and, on a personal level, probably more sympathetic. And since Norman Potter is mildly facetious about a writer of crime stories ‘detecting’ aspects of Read, it is worth mentioning that Read enjoyed crime stories, and that his reviews of them in the Thirties (he called Poirot ‘an ageless eunuch, immune from the vicissitudes of life’) contain some of his liveliest, least formal writing.
Vol. 12 No. 17 · 13 September 1990
I am sorry that Julian Symons (Letters, 30 August) responds so huffily – and at ninety degrees – to the mild strictures in my letter. I rather wished I had pulled him up more sharply. I did take the precaution of showing his review, without comment, to a few people who had known Herbert Read’s work. All agreed that ‘Symons obviously has it in for Read.’ Possibly, there was no intention on his part to be quite so dismissive (automatic writing?), which would account for his bewilderment when taken to task.
The evidence is clear enough. Starting on a down-beat, the review has Read ‘a saint … also ridiculous’ and ‘only a saint or an idiot would …’ in the first two paragraphs. Hence that objection. Read was surely neither. Then, to use transactional language, which feels appropriate here, the review has six strokes for Read and no less than 28 blows. Perhaps Julian Symons would count with me: the suggestion is that Read deserved them. Such an analysis is forgivably crude because in this context, telling. It leaves out the tone the review adopts – on which no comment – and its ostensible purpose, the reviewing of James King’s book, which I said was done inadequately. If this does not amount to a double putdown, disguised as something else, I wonder what would.
Nowhere do I suggest that Read was a ‘fine’ artist, on any reading of this oddly-chosen word. I prefer to say – to begin with – that Herbert Read was a splendid man and we should be thankful that he existed. His contribution was always generous, often highly pertinent, and in certain ways – as I indicated – of specially enduring and accessible interest. If his creative energy suffered undue dispersion, it was in the service of public duty to a disintegrating culture as he then saw it. Anything at all ‘public’ is unfashionable just now, but perhaps such duties should be reinstated in public esteem?
A further objection might be put as follows. Major artists will look after their own reputations – even posthumously. Minor ones must take pot-luck. The standard-bearers in our recent cultural history are fewer in number, and more vulnerable. It is unseemly, disrespectful, and at the cost of our own urgent needs, to seek to cut them down to size as a seemingly routine exercise in ‘re-evaluation’. Has this become a habit of Post-Modern criticism, or is such practice almost the whole of its self-definition and raison d’être?