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 of modern art in twentieth-century Britain. Through his extensive output of writing, he championed artists including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Kurt Schwitters and popularised artistic movements including Abstraction and Surrealism.

His early artistic sensibilities were forged here in Yorkshire: Read was born on a farm in Kirkbymoorside and enrolled at the University of Leeds in 1912.

Over the last year, a funded project to research Herbert Read’s art collection has uncovered the stories behind his earliest owned artworks and their ties to Read’s time as a young student in Leeds. These works now reside in the University’s art collection, due to a generous bequest by Read’s son Benedict in 2017.

It was during Read’s studies that he joined the Leeds Arts Club – at the time one of the most advanced centres for Modernist thinking and experimental art in the country. Weekly discussions were led by Sir Michael Sadler, then Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds, and Frank Rutter, Curator of Leeds City Art Gallery, both of whom had a significant influence on the young Herbert Read.

Rutter brought Modernist exhibitions to Leeds which Read would have undoubtedly seen, enjoying works by Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh. Meanwhile, Sadler often hosted Arts Club meetings in his Headingley home. Read would have sat in the presence of Sadler’s impressive modern art collection, featuring works by Paul Gauguin, Wassily Kandinsky and the Bloomsbury Group. Read also had backdoor access to this collection by taking tea with Sadler’s housekeeper, who was his mother’s friend!

A pencil drawing on brown paper of a young Herbert Read’s head and neck. It is inscribed “Kramer” at the bottom-right of the page.
Jacob Kramer, Drawing of Herbert Read, 1914, pencil. © Estate of John David Roberts. By permission of the Treasury Solicitor. Image credit: University of Leeds.

One artwork connected to this period of Read’s life is Drawing of Herbert Read by Jacob Kramer.

Jacob Kramer was the first artist that Herbert Read ever met: they were both students at Leeds University and members of the Leeds Arts Club. They corresponded extensively throughout the 1910s, engaging in passionate discussions and disagreements about art, even after both of their studies were cut short due to the onset of the First World War.

Kramer made this portrait of Read in 1914 when Read was twenty-one years old, meaning it is likely the first artwork that he was ever gifted. Read later noted that “my conception of what an artist is and should be was influenced by my early acquaintance with Jacob.”

Kramer sent at least four artworks to Read during this time.

A printed woodcut on aging paper, featuring black and grey geometric shapes rising to the top of the paper. It is inscribed “Edward Wadsworth 1914” at the bottom-right of the page.
Edward Wadsworth, Yorkshire Village, 1914, woodcut. Bequest of Benedict Read, 2017. Image credit: University of Leeds.

A second work is Yorkshire Village by Edward Wadsworth, which was the first artwork that Herbert Read purchased for himself.

Whilst he bought it after the war in 1919, it still relates to Read’s time at the Leeds Arts Club. Wadsworth was a Yorkshire-born artist closely associated with the Vorticism movement, whom Read would have discussed widely at the Club. It was also Frank Rutter who curated the exhibition of Wadsworth’s woodcuts and drawings at the Adelphi Gallery, London, which Read bought this piece from.

Interestingly, Read had also taken up painting and drawing around this time, even writing a letter to his uncle in September 1916 in which he contemplated studying art in London or Paris after the war rather than returning to university. The similarities between the bold geometric shapes of both Wadsworth’s and Read’s art show Read’s Vorticist preferences as a young man – a likely reason for buying this particular work.

A composition of yellow, red and black geometric shapes. They are arranged in a fan pattern at the bottom of the page and vertical lines at the top of the page. It is inscribed “Figure Composition No. 1” at the bottom-left of the page and “H. E. Read 1916” at the bottom-right of the page.
Sir Herbert Read, Figure Composition No. 1, 1916, watercolour and ink. Private collection. Image credit: University of Leeds.

Both of these artworks are therefore incredible examples of Herbert Read’s early artistic associations and a personal insight into the man who would go on to profoundly shape the British art scene until the 1960s.

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.