Greatest Art Critics Series
Herbert Read

Biography of British Art Critic: Champion of Modern Art.

Sir Herbert Read DSO, MC (1893-1968)


Art Criticism
Writer, Lecturer
British Modern Art Movements
Art Education Resources


One of the greatest art critics in Britain to specialize in abstract art of the early and mid-20th century, Herbert Read won a number of medals for bravery during World War I. His experiences in this conflict, including the death of his brother, turned him into an anarchist and lifelong pacifist. He held a range of posts within the art world: curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum; professor of fine arts at Edinburgh University, and editor of the scholarly Burlington Magazine. He was a prolific writer on different types of art, including painting sculpture, stained glass and ceramics. His most famous book is probably The Meaning of Art (1931), which was followed by Art Now: an Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture (1933) and Art and Industry (1934). Known as the "pope of modern art", Read became Britain's leading interpreter of abstract paintings and abstract sculpture during the three decades 1930-1960, championing a number of modern artists like the painter Paul Nash (1889-1946) and the leaders of modern British sculpture like Jacob Epstein (1880–1959), Henry Moore (1898-1986), Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and Anthony Caro (1924-2013). A long-term trustee of the Tate Gallery, in 1936 he organized the British exhibition of Surrealism, and in 1947 was the co-founder of the London Institute of Contemporary Arts. A poet as well as a prolific and talented writer on many different aspects of art, culture and politics, Read contributed numerous articles to the Criterion (1922–1939) and the magazine New Age, and was for many years art critic for the Listener.

For other important art critics, see the celebrated Swiss Professor of art history Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97), Frenchmen Louis Leroy (1812-1885), Felix Feneon (1861-1944) and Louis Vauxcelles (1870-1943), the Victorian John Ruskin (1819-1900), the bohemian Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), the TV art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-83), the modernist Clement Greenberg (1909-94) and his rivals Harold Rosenberg (1906-78), the anti-modernist John Canaday (1907-85), and the critic and controversial Renaissance historian Leo Steinberg (1920-2011).




After being into a farming family at Kirkbymoorside, North Yorkshire, Read was orphaned as a child. He left school at 16 to become a bank clerk, and studied in the evenings to gain entrance to Leeds University to study economics. He also began writing poetry, publishing books in 1915 and 1919. Graduating from university in 1915, he then served with conspicuous bravery in the British army on the Western Front (1915-1918), rising to the rank of captain and winning both the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross (MC). In 1922, Read became a curator in the department of ceramic art at the famous Victoria and Albert Museum, where he remained until 1931. It was here that he wrote several books on pottery and stained glass art. In addition, he developed contacts with colleagues abroad, including Wilhelm Worringer professor of art history at Bonn University, and Max Sauerlandt director of the Museum for Art and Commerce. He also met the members of the Bauhaus design school, including the architects Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). All these individuals helped to shape Read's ideas on modern art, and prepare him for the next stage of his career.

Art Criticism

In 1931 he left the Victoria & Albert to take up the Watson Gordon chair of fine arts at Edinburgh University, where he wrote and published some of his most influential art books and articles. In 1933, he left the University to become editor of the Burlington Magazine (1933-39) - Britain's first scholarly journal on art history, founded in 1903, by Bernard Berenson, Herbert Horne, Charles Holmes and Roger Fry. Hereafter, Reed's career in the arts involved editing and art criticism, together with lectures and curating. In 1933 he published Art Now, a cogent justification of modern European art, and in 1934 he edited Unit One: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, for the avant-garde art group Unit One. In 1935-1936, he was appointed Sydney Jones lecturer in art at the University of Liverpool; in 1936, he helped to organized the influential International Surrealist Exhibition in London; in 1939, he was appointed the first director of a museum of modern art in London - a project which was cancelled on the outbreak of war. In 1940-42 he was the Leon fellow at the University of London 1940-1942. He also maintained a busy writing schedule: he published Art and Society in 1937, his influential Education through Art in 1943 and Anarchy and Order in 1945.

Writer, Lecturer

After the war, he accepted the post of editor with the book publishers Routledge and Keegan Paul, where he supervised a series of titles on "English Master Painters." (Se also: Best English Painters: 1700-1900) In 1947, along with the Surrealist artist Roland Penrose (1900-84), he set up the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). (See: Contemporary British Painting: 1960-2000.) In 1953, much to the dismay of his anarchist friends, he accepted a knighthood for his services to art. He continued lecturing and writing throughout the 1950s: in 1953-54 he was the Charles Eliot Norton Fellow at Harvard University; in 1954 he delivered the A.W.Mellon lecture at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. In 1959, he published his Concise History of Modern Painting, followed in 1964 by A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, and in 1965 by Henry Moore: A Study of His Life and Work. (For Moore's style, see: Biomorphic Abstraction.) In 1964 and 1965, he was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies, Wesleyan University. Married twice, his first, to Evelyn Roff in 1919, was dissolved; in 1936 he married Margaret Ludwig.

British Modern Art Movements

Modernist art movements in Britain, during the period 1870-1970, include:

- Glasgow School of Painting (c.1880-1915) Fontainebleau School style.
- Newlyn School (flourished 1884-1914) Plein-air landscapes.
- St Ives School (c.1880-1993) Abstract painting and sculpture.
- Scottish Colourists (c.1904-30) British Fauvism.
- Camden Town Group (c.1911-13) British Impressionism.
- Vorticism (c.1914-15) British Cubism.
- Op-Art (flourished 1965-70) Optical art style led by Bridget Riley.

Art Education

For more about arts appreciation, see these resources:

- Art Evaluation
- How to Appreciate Paintings
- How to Appreciate Sculpture
- How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture

• For more about British art historians and critics, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.