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Library display

Herbert Read: A Gentle Radical

Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

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Herbert Read (1893-1968) was a remarkable figure in the world of twentieth-century art and culture. Born in Yorkshire, Read fought in the First World War before becoming a published poet, novelist and essayist, co-founding the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, serving as editor of The Burlington Magazine, and becoming one of the UK’s most prominent anarchists.

This small exhibition illustrates the expanse of Read’s support for the arts, his championing of modern art and artists as revolutionary, and the central role he believed art should play within education and society.

In The Education of Free Men, Read writes passionately about the importance of a child’s education being led from the earliest stages by their individual creative spirit. He viewed the nurturing of innate aesthetic potential as essential to building a society of intellectual and moral virtue. Furthermore, he considered art itself to be ’a quality inherent in all work well done’, a democratising impulse born of eclectic tastes.

These tastes are demonstrated by his work on subjects as diverse as stained glass and industrial design. Both Barbara Hepworth’s (1903-75) work depicting Read with his children and Scottie Wilson’s Peaceful Village II (1960) portray aspects of this gentle radicalism and an artist-led utopianism.

Barbara Hepworth, 'The Poet Reading to His Children' 1948, oil and pencil on board. Courtesy Leeds Museums and galleries (Leeds Art Gallery).

Read was clear that a revolutionary artistic act was very different from a revolutionary political one. In his 1960 preface to a revised edition of Art Now Read wrote, ‘the revolutionary artist is not […] to be identified with the revolutionary politician’. He believed that revolutionary art should be revolutionary in itself, not stuck on revolutionary subjects.

It is widely thought his commitment to modern art began with a visit to Henry Moore’s studio in 1929, but for Read, Moore was one revolutionary spirit among many.

The display here represents the breadth of art movements and art makers championed by Read, from Abstraction to Surrealism, Hepworth to the ‘Geometry of Fear’ artists, from established painters such as Alan Davie (1920-2014) to relative outsiders such as Scottie Wilson (1891-1972) and Stass Paraskos (1933-2014) – and, of course, children.

This display has been programmed alongside a wider series of research events on Herbert Read in collaboration with the University of Leeds and the Paul Mellon Centre in Studies for British Art.

This display is part of our current season of research looking at renowned novelist, publisher, editor and art critic Herbert Read.

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