HERBERT READ: He was a self-made man of many qualities – a war hero, an anarchist, a writer, the shaper of British art and discoverer of the greatest poet of the century. Michael Hickling reports on a revival.
Andy Dalton holds fast to one end of a trolley that’s about to receive a large bronze sculpture. At the other end, two men are warily sliding the prize cargo, a few millimetres at a time, out of its road-going container. Half way across, the leading edge of the plinth catches the lip of the trolley and the sculpture lurches sideways and down. The hands of bystanders shoot out to arrest the momentum and haul everything back on an even keel.
It’s a momentary blip. Minutes later, the sculpture is screwed into its armoured exhibition cabinet.
“It’s the most significant piece we’ve had – and the heaviest,” says Andy, the gallery manager at the Ryedale Folk Museum, in Hutton-le-Hole.
What they have been so carefully manoeuvring is Spring, a work created in 1965 by Barbara Hepworth. Andy won’t say exactly how much it’s insured for. Six figures anyway.
It has come here as the centrepiece of a new exhibition dedicated not to Hepworth but to a central figure in her artistic life, a man who lived just down the road from here, Herbert Read.
This key figure in British art and letters in the first half of 20th century was close friends with Hepworth and Henry Moore and others whose work then embodied the shock of the new. Herbert Read’s writings formed the critical frame of reference into which they fitted.
It was a richly-textured life and when he died in the mid-Sixties, his name was world famous. Today, it’s not one that rings bells with the general public. From a distance, his reputation looks forbidding, built on a rock of abstract theorising.
Close-to, it’s not like that at all. His best writing is earthy, passionate, precise. It bursts with love for the landscape of his heart, vividly depicting a vanished rural Ryedale and the characters who peopled it in a memoir called The Innocent Eye.
Its directness and simplicity makes an instant connection with any reader of any age. It will surely make him a hit with a new audience now that part of the memoir has been newly published in an anthology of his work with a local flavour which has been brought out as part of the exhibition.
It’s titled Between the Riccall and the Rye, the rivers bounding the farm where he was born the son of a tenant farmer. Both his father and mother were from families who had worked for generations on the Duncombe Park estate. Herbert recollects a way of life – the sights and smells, tastes and rhythms – which had in the main remained unchanged for centuries.
These would be swept away with a few short years after his childhood ended. Today, the family farmhouse, Muscoates Grange, still stands facing the southern flanks of the Hambleton Hills and nearby Nunnington where Herbert went to school. The Reads preferred to use the house’s north-facing door which opens onto the plain leading up to Kirkbymoorside.
A few great families owned most of everything the eye could see. The Reads were not landowners but Herbert’s beginnings were not humble. An uncle was a miller, an aristocrat of the agricultural community. Another relative was a doctor. The family rode to hounds, they had a kitchen maid and nine farm hands. Photographs of young Herbert and his brothers show them kitted out in quality suits and boots.
He wrote about this more than 30 years later, long after he’d been ejected from his earthly paradise, as a means of explaining to his German-Scottish wife who he was.
These adult responses to a remembered childhood have such clarity they seem to distil the smell of the bacon and the hams hanging from the ceiling, the reeking stackyard, the cow pasture, the orchard. The gypsy-like figure of the horse-breaker who arrives and unpacks his violin brings a whiff of the exotic to the farm.
In these pages, the social and physical contours of his world are laid out as precisely as a map, and you can follow the young lad to places such as St Gregory’s Minster, where he went to church and is buried, and discover them unchanged from his day.
At the age of eight, his father died of rheumatic fever. The contents of the farm were sold. Before long, Herbert found himself on the moors just outside Halifax, at the Crossley and Porter Orphan Home and School with 300 other children whose education also relied on charity.
He hated his five years there, although one of its legacies, the ability to concentrate and read amid racket and disorder, served him well in later life, especially in the trenches.
At 15, he was taken on as a clerk by a small Leeds savings bank. His mother, struggling to support her family by working in a Leeds laundry, urged her son to put away arty thoughts about going to university. Herbert, reserved and ambitious, had other ideas.
The family, living in Buckingham Mount in what is now the student quarter of Leeds, had no money. A Leeds tailor befriended the young idealist with leftish leanings, lent him books and encouraged him to follow his dream.
Having won a place at Leeds University in 1912, Herbert made other significant friends, one the vice-chancellor who shared a passion for modern art. Herbert’s mother died in December 1914, the household broke up and Herbert joined the Green Howards. When his unit departed for the Western Front the following January, it was Herbert’s first time out of Yorkshire. His debut book of poetry was published the same year.
He served throughout the war and somehow found the time to start an arts journal – the first to publish the work of an unknown called TS Eliot. Herbert won the MC at the second battle of the Somme in 1917 and the DSO in 1918 and, amid all this, he kept on writing.
His second book of poems came out the year after the war ended. On Armistice Day 66 years later, his name was one of 16 Great War poets commemorated on a stone unveiled in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Herbert was demobbed as a captain. Possibly, given his record of gallantry, the rank would have been higher had he not been, by temperament, a pacifist and, by conviction, an anarchist.
In London, he worked in the Treasury and then at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Appointed as a professor of Fine Art in Edinburgh, he abandoned that city when he eloped with the woman who was to become his second wife.
Back in London, he became editor of the Burlington Magazine, knew anyone who was anyone in the visual arts, especially among the Barbara Hepworth-Henry Moore circle, and co-founded the Institute for Contemporary Art.
He was equally at home among fellow writers and poets, including Eliot and George Orwell. It was for services to literature that he was knighted in 1952.
This eminent man of letters, and by now world-famous critic, moved back to his paradise lost in 1948. He purchased what had originally been the rectory in Stonegrave, just a ramble away from his old home at Muscoates Grange, dividing his time between here and London.
It was not an entirely happy transition. Socially, this part of the world was still much as he had left it. Lloyd George’s radical plan for land reform, planned for 1916, had been stymied by the war and around here the people who had owned practically everything in the 1890s possessed it still.
There were not many fellow anarchist intellectuals to be found strolling these Hambleton Hills. Herbert’s wife did not find it easy moving here either and it’s suggested he accepted his knighthood in 1952 as a love token for her. The result for him of his elevation was painful ostracism from his anarchist comrades whose home was the Freedom Press in London.
They had lost their most able and popular spokesman and, as a gesture of their outrage, the anarchists ceased sending him packets of fresh coffee from the King Bomba delicatessen in Soho. That’s not to be dismissed at a time when up North a decent cup of coffee was hard to find.
His fame has diminished since his death in 1968, but Dr Michael Paraskos thinks this will now revive through people connecting with his Yorkshire identity. Dr Paraskos, an authority on Herbert Read, has put together the new anthology of his work for the exhibition at Hutton-le-Hole.
There’s also a rising groundswell of interest locally. John Dean, a resident of the area, now leads the Herbert Read of Ryedale group which began with organised walks taking in places of significance to the writer, such as the old mill near Kirkbymoorside, where young Herbert used to visit his uncle.
“There’s a bit of a myth that he didn’t mix with the community he was from,” says John Dean.
“He was very reserved, but I know two farmers who said they got on well with him. Maybe he wasn’t going to hobnob with them every day. But he was deeply attached to this landscape.”
* Herbert Read: Yorkshire Modern, to September 4, Gallery at Ryedale Folk Museum, Hutton le Hole, YO62 6UA.
* Between the Riccall and the Rye, The Orange Press, £7.99. To order your copy, ring our order line 01748 821122 Mon-Sat 9am-5pm. Or by post, please send a cheque or postal order, plus £2.75 postage, to Yorkshire Books Ltd, 1 Castle Hill, Richmond, DL10 4QP. Order online, www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/shop