This month we bid farewell to the exhibition Art in an Electric Atmosphere: the Library and Archive of Herbert Read, which has been on display for the past year in Treasures of the Brotherton.  

Visitors were greeted to an assortment of items from the Herbert Read Archive, highlighting different aspects of his life. To those not familiar with his name, Read came from humble beginnings. The son of a farmer, he was raised in Yorkshire and went on to profoundly affect the British art scene from the 1930s to the 1960s. He gained a considerable international reputation as a poet, critic, anarchist, educationalist, historian and philosopher.  

In 1915 Herbert Read went to fight in the First World War, emerging in 1918 as a decorated hero, committed pacifist and published poet. He went on to be one of the most important cultural figures of the day, co-founding the Institute of Contemporary Arts with Roland Penrose. Read was knighted in 1953 by Winston Churchill for services to literature, having written over 30 publications, most notably ‘Form in Modern Poetry’ (1932), ‘Art Now’ (1933, rev. ed. 1936, 1948), ‘Art and Society’ (1936), ‘Education through Art’ (1943), and ‘The Philosophy of Modern Art’ (1952). 

“You cannot impose a culture from the top–it must come from under. It grows out of the soil, out of the people, out of their daily life and work…and if this does not exist, the culture will not exist.”

Herbert Read wrote in ‘To Hell with Culture’ (1941). 

The exhibition featured a new projected video work by contemporary artist and guest-curator, Stephen Sutcliffe, a Yorkshire born artist, now based in Glasgow. Sutcliffe’s work reflects on aspects of British culture and identity, using a collage of film, audio samples, broadcast images and spoken word recordings. 

The commission for the exhibition includes imagery and materials from Read’s archive as well as footage taken from Google Earth. The video traces back through a memory of Headingley while a male voiceover recounts part of a poem sequence by Martin Bell called “The City of Dreadful Something”. 

The exhibition was also guest-curated by Pavilion, a visual arts organisation that produces and presents ambitious new work by contemporary artists and supports the development of practitioners in the region.  

The exhibition comprised over 165 items from Read’s archive and library. It was put together with Sutcliffe’s collagist sensibility to reflect the contradictory life of the man himself. On display was everything from the mundane, such as a 1964 receipt for a domestic dishwasher, to the extraordinary, like a postcard sent to Read by Pablo Picasso.  

Featured image: Herbert Read in his study with a sculpture by Naum Gabo. Leeds University Library Special Collections BC Read.