Benedict Read discusses the two books written by his father Herbert Read on the artist Ben Nicholson in 1948 and 1956 and the wider impact of Lund Humphries’ monographs in this period.
The Lund Humphries monographs started with Henry Moore in 1944. This set a format of listing works, plentiful illustrations, an artist’s own writings or comments plus a critical introduction by Herbert Read. This pioneer volume was followed by others on Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo. These had all been leading members of what Read had christened ‘A Nest of Gentle Artists’, living close to each other in Hampstead in the 1930s. The effect of these volumes was dramatic. As Patrick Heron commented to me once, ‘reputations are created outside, in the great outside world, and that book by Lund Humphries, by your father, on first Henry and then Ben went into the museum libraries of the world just as the world ended…’ In other words, the volumes were sent as missionary, propaganda statements; as the volumes came clunking through the international institutional letter boxes, they set out a claim that British artists were as worthy of the full monographic treatment as anything on Picasso, Matisse or other equivalent national artists. Due tribute must always be paid to Peter Gregory, the Managing Dirctor of Lund Humphries, who gave the scheme his backing.
The Ben volumes correspond in a basic way to the others in the series. But − as is carefully indicated in both − their design was specifically his. Those who know Ben’s work, in painting or drawing or indeed in his unmistakable handwriting, will recognise that mixture of the spare clarity that also amounts to a collective richness. There are introductions by Herbert Read − they had been literally next door neighbours in The Mall Studios in Hampstead from 1933 to 1938, and their daily contact there continued with the artistic diaspora that set in as World War Two loomed. The Nicholson/Read discourse continued in letter form and the Tate Archive and the University of Victoria, British Columbia Archive bear witness to a meeting of minds that continued until Read’s death in 1968.
Son of eminent art critic Sir Herbert Read, Benedict Read is an academic and author. He has taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art and the University of Leeds, where he was the Director of the MA Sculpture Studies programme. He has written widely on British art history and his books include Victorian Sculpture (1982) and, with Joana Barnes, Pre-Raphaelite Sculpture (Lund Humphries, 1991).