Recent work in Special Collections has enabled us to begin to explore the riches of the Herbert Read archive.

The Dictionary of National Biography describes Read as a ‘poet, literary critic, and writer on art’. This hints at the range of his influence but falls short of the ‘half-a-dozen fields’ that he partly joked had made his legacy hard to characterise. ‘[I]n dissipating my talents’, he wrote, ‘I have made it difficult for my contemporaries to recognize the underlying unity of my purpose and my practice. I am left with the hope that someday someone will take the trouble to trace ‘the figure in the carpet’.’

Read’s archive contains a dazzling array of material, as varied as his many projects and interests.  His correspondence, in particular, shows his cultural reach and the depth of his engagement with generations of artists, writers and thinkers.

One of the most interesting series of correspondence is Read’s letters to Bonamy Dobrée, which date from 1925-1968.

Dobrée and Read both contributed to T.S. Eliot’s literary magazine, the Criterion.  They were co-editors of the London Book of English Prose (1931) and the London Book of English Verse (1949).  Both sat on Gregory Fellowships Advisory Committee at the University of Leeds, where Dobrée was Professor in the School of English (1936-1955).

The letters are part intellectual debate and literary gossip and part domestic detail.  Read’s letters in from the 1920s describe the literary scene for Dobrée who was working in Cairo. Read writes of the ‘dead mutton’ that he thought Eliot would use to fill his newly monthly Criterion.  He mentions the emergence of a rival publication, the Enemy: ‘Wyndham Lewis has broken loose again with a fat periodical […] Poor Ezra will hardly lift his head again.’ Later letters discuss candidates for the Gregory Fellowships at the University of Leeds.

Herbert Read letter to Bonamy Dobree, 1927

The correspondence reveals a unity of purpose in Read’s wide-ranging interest in art and poetry.  His critiques are incisive and indicate his desire for fresh and innovative work. The letters are also a testament to his and Dobrée’s enduring friendship.

This is an abbreviated version of an article by Dr Ruth Burton appearing in the next Stand Magazine.