Rebecca Higgins, Curatorial Researcher for the Herbert Read Project within the Leeds University Library Galleries, picks her highlights from Read’s extensive art collection:

Over the last year, I have been working on a funded project to research the art collection of Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968). Read is widely recognised as one of the leading advocates of modern art in twentieth-century Britain, who championed through his writing artists including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson and popularised artistic movements including Abstraction and Surrealism.

Read received gifts and tokens of appreciation for his unwavering support, acquiring an impressive, yet deeply personal, collection of approximately two hundred works of art over his lifetime: spanning genres, techniques and artists from Pablo Picasso to a chimpanzee. A large portion of his collection now resides in the University’s art collection, due to a generous bequest of over one hundred artworks by Read’s son Benedict in 2017.

In my last blog post for the project, I want to introduce you to some of my favourite artworks from Herbert Read’s collection:

Märta Worringer’s ‘Und Mordgeschats’ (c. 1920)

Märta Worringer, Und Mordgeschats, c. 1920, lithograph*. Bequest of Benedict Read, 2017. Image credit: University of Leeds.

Märta Worringer (1881-1965) was a German Expressionist artist, best known for her austere drawings of anonymous women. She was particularly successful during the years of the Weimar Republic, in which she frequently exhibited throughout Germany and was able to financially support her family.

Märta was also the wife of famed art historian Wilhelm Worringer, in whom Herbert Read developed an interest during the mid-1920s. He later dedicated The Philosophy of Modern Art (1951) to Wilhelm as “My esteemed master in the philosophy of art.”

Read visited the Worringers as their houseguest in Bonn around 1927 and Märta likely gifted Und Mordgeschats to him around this time. He remained firm friends with the family until the Worringers’ deaths in 1965. Read owned at least three early works by Worringer. They are now considered rare, as she was forced to leave behind most of her oeuvre during the Second World War.

Jean Cocteau’s ‘Portrait of Herbert Read’ (1936)

Jean Cocteau, Portrait of Herbert Read, 1936, ink. © ADAGP/ DACS / Comité Cocteau, Paris 2022. Bequest of Benedict Read, 2017. Image credit: University of Leeds.

Frustratingly, not much is known about the friendship between Herbert Read and the French poet and artist Jean Cocteau (1889-1963).

However, a friendship is indeed indicated by the fact that Read used Cocteau’s drawing Night of the Night (1926) as the frontispiece for his seminal work Art Now (1933). It is an artwork recorded as being in Read’s collection, with an inscription translated into English as: “Friendly remembrance to Professor Read by Jean Cocteau”.

In 1936, Read was given this delightful portrait of himself by Cocteau, with an English transcription of “For Read in remembrance of La Sarraz friendship – 1936”. La Sarraz is a castle in Switzerland where multiple Modernist artist meetings occurred throughout the 1920s and 30s – a likely first meeting point between Read and Cocteau.

Kurt Schwitters’ ‘Merzbild (Dundrennan)’ (1947)

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbild (Dundrennan), 1947, collage. Bequest of Benedict Read, 2017. Image credit: University of Leeds.

Kurt Schwitters gifted this collage, and two others from his famous ‘Merz’ series, to Herbert Read in thanks to Read for his support when the artist fled persecution in Nazi Germany to London in the early 1940s.

Read first visited Schwitters at his studio in October 1944 and subsequently wrote the catalogue introduction for Schwitters’ only solo exhibition in England during his lifetime at the Modern Art Gallery, London in December 1944. Read called him “the supreme master of the collage” and correspondence shows that Read’s support even went as far as sponsoring Schwitters’ application for British naturalisation.

Kurt Schwitters’ gratitude to Hebert Read also led him to feature Read as the central image in one of his 1944 collages, using a photograph cut from an issue of the Picture Post in which an article by Read appeared.

Ruth Francken’s ‘Composition’ (1955)

Ruth Francken, Composition, 1955, gouache and chalk. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021. Bequest of Benedict Read, 2017. Image credit: University of Leeds.

Herbert Read met the Czech-American artist Ruth Francken at Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo in Venice in 1952.

Read’s passionate support of Francken’s work led her to nickname him as her “Anchor” in their extensive correspondence, in which she would frequently discuss her doubts about her career and send him sketches of things she was working on. Francken was the original recipient of Read’s A Letter to a Young Painter (1962), in which he describes her work as having a “haunting quality” that “remained in my mind in all their original clarity.”

Alongside this Composition, Read had at least five other works by Francken in his collection.

J. Iqbal Geoffrey’s ‘Decomposed Symphony of the Segregated Colour’ (1956)

J. Iqbal Geoffrey, Decomposed Symphony of the Segregated Colour, 1956, watercolour*. Bequest of Benedict Read, 2017. Image credit: University of Leeds.

J. Iqbal Geoffrey was a Modernist painter and barrister from Pakistan, who moved to London in 1960 to begin his artistic career. He was somewhat of a prodigy; his work Epitaph 1958 (1958) in the Tate Collection was produced when he was just 19.

He found almost immediate support from Herbert Read, who amongst other writings on the artist edited the monograph Iqbal Geoffrey: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolours 1949–63 (1963). In one letter to Read, Iqbal Geoffrey refers to him as “the greatest human being” in recognition of his support. Further correspondence from Iqbal Geoffrey to Read discusses his experiences of racism as a South Asian artist. This resulted in him largely giving up painting by the mid-1960s, instead moving to the USA to take up teaching and law positions.

Read owned one of the earliest abstract works ever made by Iqbal Geoffrey, alongside the drawing Brown Bulletin (1963), given as a gift for Herbert’s 70th birthday the same year.

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.

*This item has been identified as an orphan work. For this item no rightholder(s) have been identified or, if one or more of them have been identified, none has been located despite a diligent search for the rightholders having been carried out. If you have information about the identity or the location of the rightholder(s), please contact us.