Written by Rebecca Higgins, Curatorial Researcher for the Herbert Read Project within the Leeds University Library Galleries.
Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968) is widely recognised as one of the leading advocates and interpreters of modern art in twentieth-century Britain.
His influential writing, including Art Now (1933), popularised new artistic movements from across Europe, such as Abstraction and Expressionism. He also helped to organise the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1947 and served as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1965.
Whilst Read’s academic legacy has been extensively studied, yet to be explored is how his position as champion of some of the most important artists of the last century led him to ‘accidentally’ acquire an enviable collection of approximately two hundred works of art.
Read maintained close friendships with artists including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson and received numerous gifts and tokens of appreciation for supporting them through his writing. The result was a collection as impressive and multi-faceted as the man himself: spanning genres, techniques and artists from Pablo Picasso to a chimpanzee!
Over the last ten months, I have been working on a funded project to research Herbert Read’s art collection. The Leeds University Libraries are in a unique position to study this subject: not only does Special Collections hold Herbert Read’s archive and personal library, but in 2017 the Galleries were presented with a bequest of 108 artworks by Read’s son, Benedict. It represents the largest portion of Read’s collection held in a public institution, and my role has involved delving into archival material to uncover the fascinating stories behind its creation.
Two major sources in this research have been Read’s own compilations of his collection. In 1963, he created for his insurers a catalogue of artworks held at his North Yorkshire home of Stonegrave. It details eighty-eight works by artists that read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of modern art: Pablo Picasso, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Kurt Schwitters, Ruth Francken, Max Ernst, Patrick Heron, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo and many more. Typed file cards of his collection supplement this catalogue – although confusion has sometimes been caused by the fact that Read liked to create his own names for the artworks!
Correspondence from institutions around the world have also illuminated the high regard that numerous artists held Herbert Read in for his writing and support, which directly led to artworks entering his collection. Examples include: letters from Read to Jacob Kramer and Willi Baumeister thanking them for sending him drawings; letters to Read from Joan Miró and Hans Erni noting that they are sending him works in gratitude for texts Read wrote on them; and extensive correspondence between Read, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo discussing the sending of artworks to Read as Christmas or birthday gifts.
The correspondence, and Herbert Read’s art collection as a whole, adds a new dimension to our understanding of the extensive international cultural network that Read created during his lifetime and that continues to the present day. This project has led me to archives in the UK, Germany, the USA and Canada and artworks previously in Read’s collection can be found everywhere from Leeds to London, Japan to New Zealand.
Herbert Read’s art collection was a unique and personal reflection of a man at the very heart of modern art: the man behind the Moderns.
To learn more about the stories behind Herbert Read’s art collection, you can visit the digital exhibition ‘Man Behind the Moderns: the Art Collection of Herbert Read’ here.