Written by Rebecca Higgins, Curatorial Researcher for the Herbert Read Project within the Leeds University Library Galleries.

December babies: do you enjoy having your birthday so close to Christmas?

Some consider it a blessing, others a curse. But for the art critic and poet Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968), whose birthday fell on 4 December, it resulted in a month-long influx of artworks from some of the most important modern artists of the twentieth century.

Over the last year, a funded project to research Herbert Read’s art collection has uncovered the works gifted to Read over the festive season by his extensive network of artist friends. Some of them now reside in the University’s art collection, due to a generous bequest by Read’s son Benedict in 2017.

For example, for Christmas 1950 Read received the wood engraving Op. 4, and at least two others from the Opus series, from his close friend Naum Gabo. It was accompanied by a letter dated 30 November, in which Gabo wrote:

“My dear Herbert – I do miss you very much – it would do me good if I would hear from you how you are getting on and what you are doing. Mr. Ivens has succeeded in forcing me into a new “racket”, as he calls it. He nagged me so long to make wood-engravings that I gave in and once started, I was very much attracted by it – it is, after all, a kind of sculpture. I am very much attracted by it – in fact I like doing it very much. I am intending to make eight or ten wood-engravings and then sell them as a set. I have done five up till now and I am sending you some of them for Christmas. I hope you like them.”

A printed woodcut on paper. A large black square takes up the majority of the paper, with an abstract white-lined shape inside. It is inscribed “Op. 4” at the bottom-left of the page and “Gabo for Herbert” at the bottom-right of the page.
Naum Gabo, Op. 4, 1950, wood engraving. The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina & Graham Williams/Tate. Bequest of Benedict Read, 2017. Image credit: University of Leeds.

The University also holds Austin Wright’s sculpture Mother and Child, which Read received for Christmas 1955. His wife, Margaret ‘Ludo’ Read, bought the work directly from the artist on Christmas Eve – talk about a last minute gift!

Other artworks gifted to Read for Christmas include the college Flowers by Valentine Dobrée. Read was a close friend of Valentine and her husband, Bonamy Dobrée, and the collage is inscribed: “With best wishes to you all from Valentine Dobrée Christmas 1930”. Read was also gifted this striking Gouache by Ben Nicholson for Christmas 1938, inscribed: “for Herbert + Ludo Xmas 1938”.

A small lead abstract figure sculpture on a wood base.
Austin Wright, Mother and Child, c. 1955, lead. © The Estate of Austin Wright. Bequest of Benedict Read, 2017. Image credit: University of Leeds.

Herbert Read also received many artworks as birthday presents. In particular, the Herbert Read Archive holds material related to Read’s 70th birthday celebrations on 4 December 1963. This includes birthday telegrams from the artists Henry Moore and Hans Richter, as well as Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

Insurance documents further reveal the artworks given to Read for this milestone birthday: sculptures by Moore and Barbara Hepworth; a small wood construction by Victor Pasmore; works on paper by Ben Nicholson, Roland Penrose and J Iqbal Geoffrey; and the lithograph Opus XX by Naum Gabo. He was also gifted a chalk drawing by the Surrealist artist Joan Miró, which Read described to his insurers as “difficult to value because it is very personal – a fantasy on my name.”

Birthday telegrams from Hans Richter and Walter Gropius to Herbert Read, 4 December 1963. Image credit: Leeds University Library.

The University holds another of these 70th birthday presents: Piazza San Marco 2 by William Congdon. It was given to Read by the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim – the two had been close friends since the latter opened her Guggenheim Jeune Gallery in London in 1938. Read frequently visited Guggenheim at her home in Venice, likely the reason for her choosing to gift him with an oil painting of the city’s main square.

An oil painting on board, featuring varied brushstrokes of brown, white and red paint to create an abstract representation of the Piazza San Marco, Venice.
William Congdon, Piazza San Marco 2, 1960, oil. © The William G. Congdon Foundation, Milano, Italy. Bequest of Benedict Read, 2017. Image credit: University of Leeds.

Herbert Read’s art collection was a unique and personal reflection of his position at the very heart of modern art, and certainly resulted in some impressive Christmas and birthday gifts!

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.