- 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.
Memories of that ideal or idealised childhood stayed with Read all his life. To see the world with the child’s eye of perfect innocence seemed to him almost a prerequisite for the creation of high art. In lectures delivered in 1935 and the following year, later collected as Art and Society, he spelt this out: ‘The artistic process in general may be said to consist of two processes: the immediate and essential one which has always been known as inspiration, and which psychologically we describe as an access to the deeper layers of the unconscious; and a secondary process of elaboration, in which the essential perceptions and intuitions of the artist are woven into a fabric which can take its place in the organised life of conscious reality.’
It was the first process that Innocent Eye Read was always looking for, in his own work and that of others, but he had an uncommon facility for the second. In person he was the image of a clerical administrator, neat, tidy and a little dandyish, with a liking for bow ties.
The ability of Clerical Read to co-ordinate details, write lucid minutes and prepare summaries was much appreciated in the jobs he later occupied at the Ministry of Labour and the Treasury. Innocent Eye Read searched for the deeper layers of the unconscious in art, and Clerical Read then laid out the theory of it in the orderly style of an efficient civil servant. In the 140 pages of his immensely influential Art Now (1933) Clerical Read is rampant, with sections headed ‘Theory of Symbolist Art’, ‘The Theory of Subjective Integrity’, ‘Plato’s Theory of Abstraction’, ‘The Concept of Form Re-Examined’ and ‘The Function of Symbolist Art’.
These divisions in Read’s personality were still inchoate when with the coming of war in 1914 he applied for a temporary Regular Army commission, and was made a second lieutenant in the Green Howards. He saw ‘primitive filth, lice, boredom and death’, behaved with calm courage during the German attack in March 1918, took command of his unit when the colonel was wounded, and was awarded the DSO and the MC. He had entered the war a Nietzschean, lamenting the lack in democracy of ‘the idea of a Super-race’. He ended it still an admirer of anti-democratic philosophers like Hulme and Sorel, but also vaguely a pacifist with a belief in the inevitability of proletarian revolution, which he thought might be based in guild socialism. Neither at this nor a later time did Read worry about the compatibility of his various social and political ideas. There are times when one feels he would have regarded coherent thought as an unworthy aspiration for a true radical.
If Read’s social ideas were woolly, however, his adherence to romanticism in art and literature became firm in the immediate post-war years. He was romantic not merely in the sense that he saw himself in poems as ‘Like a faun my head uplifted/In delicate mists’, and an imagined lover as ‘the lady in the leopard’s skin’ with ‘roses in her waving hair’. Even in an ambitious later poem like ‘The Analysis of Love’, where the manner of Donne is deliberately invoked, the images have a vagueness remote from metaphysical exactness, as in verses like
The stars and the dark palliation
Are not indwelling
When driven lust has dark dominion
In the mind’s eclipse.
Like much of Read’s verse, this means less the longer you look at it.
The progress towards a romantic view of art can be seen in several essays worrying away over the years at the idea of poetry as the product of the Innocent Eye. A piece contributed to Frank Rutter’s magazine Art and Letters in 1918 suggests that rhyme, metre and alliteration are no more than decorative devices ‘to be used as the vision demands’. A later essay ‘Obscurity in Poetry’ tells us more boldly that poetry is impervious to reason’, has ‘no discoverable meaning’ and ‘must be received directly, without questioning, and loved or hated’, and ‘Myth, Dream and Poem’ concludes that the poet is somebody ‘no longer in his right mind’, but ‘visited by voices that come ... from deep within the self’. Automatism, he suggested, should be investigated, and offered for consideration a poem of his own written automatically in a state of trance. (Not surprisingly, it differed very little from others written presumably in a condition of full consciousness.) It followed naturally that Read thought Dryden, Pope and Wordsworth less ‘essentially poetic’ than Shelley and Blake, and deprecated what he called Jane Austen’s universe of undertones. During the Thirties he found in Auden ‘a definite backsliding in the technique of verse’, and regretted that he was ‘aping the antics of Kipling and Byron’.
It is a mark of the division in Read that he was both attracted and repelled by those whose views about art differed deeply from his own. He was overwhelmed on first meeting Wyndham Lewis, called him ‘a great and scandalously ignored painter’, and as late as 1932 said Lewis was ‘by far the most active force among us’. But he nursed feelings of resentment that his admiration was not reciprocated, and in 1950 wrote plaintively, ‘I always try to please you, but I don’t always succeed,’ a remark which brought a caustic response. Read took final revenge in a malicious, though still cautious obituary written for the New Statesman. (Perhaps he feared that even a dead Enemy might bite back.)
Still more complex was his relationship with Eliot. Professor King suggests that Eliot was for Read a father figure ‘whom he could emulate, rebel against and, at times, loathe’, and that seems about right. Eliot published Read’s poems, his essays, and some of his books about art, but at times was sharply critical of the ideas behind them. Read’s response was both admiring and resentful. He worked hard for the success of the Criterion, while complaining that Eliot was ‘like a gloomy priest presiding over my affections and spontaneity’, and later telling Stephen Spender that Eliot’s reputation had overshadowed his whole life. This reaction to Lewis, Eliot, and Spender himself, to whom, he said, ‘one must be infinitely forgiving’, was purely emotional. ‘Doesn’t daddy love to be loved?’ one of his children said, and Read’s feeling about several of his friends seems to have been that they didn’t love him enough.
The divisions in Read extended to his own writing. The essays advocating extreme romantic ideas are written in the cool orderly prose of Clerical Read, and so is the excellent primer English Prose Style (1928), with its separation between Composition and Rhetoric, sections on the sentence and the paragraph as well as on fantasy, imagery and invention, and its emphasis on the importance of balance, form and unity. Professor King’s book is well-organised, impartial, and makes intelligent analyses of Read’s thought, but Read would have been horrified by a prose style that says he ‘authored’ six books in a given year, offers a tautology like ‘tedious boredom’, tells us that after his father’s death Read was ‘rudely plucked from his world of innocent wonder’, and that his plans ‘came to nought’, and gives inadequate or otiose adjectives to many of the people mentioned, ‘irascible’ Leavis and Grigson, ‘astringent’ Connolly, ‘aggressive’ Lewis, ‘perennially acerbic’ Douglas Cooper, ‘self-righteous’ Rayner Heppenstall, and so on.
It was the need to make a living that pushed Read’s interests towards visual art. In 1919 he married Evelyn Roff, whom he had met when they were students at Leeds. Working first at the Ministry of Labour and then the Treasury, he came home every night to the house in Purley which he named Muscoates, had dinner, and retired to his study. His wife found this unsatisfactory, and their relationship was not much improved by the birth of their only child John, whose first memories were of his father’s detachment and his mother’s ‘sometimes overweening’ devotion to her husband. In 1922 Read threw up his £400 a year at the Treasury for little more than half that as an Assistant Keeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He took to the new job with enthusiasm, but soon found himself overworked and dissatisfied. An article on ‘The Meaning of Art’ for the Listener was so popular that it became the first of more than fifty pieces, which turned into a book. Eliot and Herbert Grierson put his name forward as Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh, and in the spring of 1931 he accepted the appointment, happy in the knowledge that he would have one term a year left free for writing.
He was not happy for long. In the early Thirties Edinburgh faculty and students did not welcome lectures dealing with Brancusi and Zadkine, Picasso and Primitivism. His slides were once placed upside down in the projector, he believed himself to be treated with hostility, some students thought him an ineffective teacher. And his marriage collapsed when he fell in love with Margaret Ludwig, known as Ludo, an ardent Catholic 13 years his junior. Evelyn objected when a grand piano was moved into their home so that Ludo could practise on it, wrote ‘cheated’ under his photograph in the family album, and disintegrated mentally so that she ended in an asylum. Read paid her alimony of £400 a year, gave up the professorship, and in 1936 married Ludo. By one account, not quoted here, she ordered his life in material matters. Read said they disagreed about most things, but that this second marriage had brought ‘physical affinity and mutual respect’, the affinity being responsible for three children. They were brought up as Catholics, although Read had no religious faith.
The years after the return to London in 1933 and before the war were probably the happiest of Herbert Read’s life. He became editor of the Burlington Magazine, managed it with Clerical Read’s characteristic efficiency, and lived in a Hampstead studio with furniture designed by Mies van der Rohe, curtains by Ben Nicholson, sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, a white skin sofa. A temporarily unirascible Geoffrey Grigson found their home ‘a place of parties, of extraordinary entertainment’, where one might meet Braque or Helion, the Nicholsons and the Moores, some of the artistic refugees from Hitler’s Germany, even hear Eliot singing ‘Frankie and Johnny’. A sweetly smiling, carefully dressed Herbert presided over all. It was in these years that he battered away at British philistinism about the visual arts with a series of books based on articles and lectures. Art Now, Art and Industry, Icon and Idea and Art and Society appeared within the space of four years. Read had been an enthusiast for Moore’s work as early as 1931, and for Nicholson and Hepworth only a little later. The Constructivist work of the Russian émigré Naum Gabo delighted him, and he was closely involved with the Surrealist exhibition in July 1936, which introduced many of these artists to an English audience. Standing on a sofa, the eminently respectable Herbert Read told an audience of several hundred that Surrealism was ‘the desperate act of men too profoundly convinced of the rottenness of our civilisation to want to save a shred of respectability’.
His propagandist mission extended far beyond support of a particular art movement. Art and Industry emphasised that industrial design should be for use and not ornament, Art Now stressed the relationship of abstract art to modern machines whose designs had ‘a certain functional perfection to which we cannot deny the name of beauty’. Read was ridiculed, but the propaganda was effective. His appointment in 1943 as head of the Design Research Unit, ‘setting out to make omelettes on a wartime egg ration’, as he put it, was an acknowledgment of his achievement.
Slowly his influence faded. In 1949 he bought an old rectory near Muscoates, and the cost of maintaining it drove him to a good deal of hackwork. The house, Stonegrave, was also near Ampleforth, and Read sometimes complained that it was awash with monks. He became a director of Routledge, lectured endlessly, wrote many introductions. King gives details of a single year, 1949, in which he gave several lectures, published books on Klee and Nicholson, wrote an essay on Paul Nash and an introduction to a Gabo exhibition, sat on selection committees for art shows, organised the first national exhibition of children’s art, and set up the first ICA show. In 1953 he became Sir Herbert. He told Geoffrey Grigson, with one of his occasional touches of cant, that he had not felt important enough to refuse. Wyndham Lewis was probably nearer the mark when he said to Michael Ayrton that Read’s wife, ‘a musical lady’, had ‘mothered him along into the total eminence that you see’. Read responded to anarchist critics that every aspect of their daily living, down to beer and cigarettes, ‘helps to sustain the bourgeois society which (in theory) you so rightly despise’. They remained unconvinced, feeling no doubt that beer and cigarettes were essentials, acceptance of a knighthood something different.
He lived another twenty years, long enough to be disappointed by the development of the ICA which he had played a large part in founding, and to see his concept of Modernism become outdated. Through all the divisions between Innocent Eye and Clerical Read that made him, as he said, like ‘a circus rider with his feet astride two horses’, there remained a belief in art as a fulfilment of the human desire for beauty and harmony, achieved through technical genius. He lived to see this belief replaced by the view that technique was almost irrelevant, that art works should themselves be disposable, and that they should reflect without obvious criticism the most vulgar aspects of modern civilisation. He found Pop Art tedious, detested minimalism, and called Lichtenstein’s Whaam! nonsense. The portrait that emerges from this factually adequate biography is probably the right one: of a gentle man, for the most part saintly but with touches of cant and malice, passionately devoted to a romantic ideal of art and literature. He was not a remarkable poet or prose writer, but in the years between the wars he helped to purge the reluctant British of their insularity.