Ben Nicholson O.M. (British, 1894-1982) 1936 (gouache) 38.1 x 50.2 cm. (15 x 19 3/4 in.)
High priest of modernism

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 52, Autumn 2017

Page 13

Friend to the greats of modern art when they were poor and unloved, Herbert Read kept the works artists showered on him in gratitude. Piers Paul Read introduces works from his father's stellar collection to be offered at Bonhams

In September 1949, my father, Herbert Read, realised a long-cherished ambition of returning to his roots in rural North Yorkshire. He bought a large Queen Anne rectory in the village of Stonegrave, three miles or so from the farm where he had been born, and had spent the first ten years of his life. He remained a director of the publishers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, and would spend every other week in London. He was then at the height of his fame in the world of arts and letters: in the four years since the end of the war, he had made 15 trips abroad, lecturing in the United States, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Greece, Italy, Czechoslovakia and Germany. As a publisher, he was pestered by would-be authors and, as a pre-eminent art critic who could make or break an artist's reputation, he was importuned by painters and sculptors to endorse their work.

Thus the move to Yorkshire was not just a return to his roots, but an escape from harassment in London. He compared himself to a Celtic monk who had withdrawn to a monastery like Lindisfarne to escape the barbarian invasion of the Dark Ages; and, seeing himself primarily as a poet, he hoped that monastic solitude in beautiful countryside would liberate his muse. Many of his friends thought that buying such a large house at a time of rationing and shortages was an act of folly.

The costs of running a house like Stonegrave were considerable: wages for a gardener, a housemaid and a cook, oil for the generator (it was not connected to the grid) and coke for the central heating. Then there were the school fees: in the 1920s, my mother, a professional musician, had played at the nearby Benedictine Abbey of Ampleforth, and had resolved that if ever she had sons they would be educated by the monks. My father had agreed to this as a quid pro quo for the move to the cultural desert of Ryedale.

If buying Stonegrave, then, was a folly, it was a folie à deux. In a recently discovered letter to my mother from T.S. Eliot, one of my father's closest friends, the poet strenuously denied that he had said that she was against the move. "I am sure I could not say anything to lead anyone to believe that you did or would prevent Herbert from retiring to Yorkshire or anywhere else, because such a thought has never crossed my mind."

What Eliot had perhaps understood was that the move to Stonegrave, far from making space for my father's muse, would itself divert his creative energies and become itself a work of art.

My parents had met in Edinburgh in the autumn of 1931, at the house of André Raffalovich, a Russian Jew devoted to a Catholic priest, John Grey. My father was then the Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University, and my mother a lecturer in music. My father was married with a son. They fell in love and in 1933 both resigned their positions at the university and ran off to London, living in one of the Mall Studios in Hampstead belonging to the painter Ben Nicholson and sculptor Barbara Hepworth. In his writing, my father had defended Gauguin and Shelley for having the courage to leave their wives for the sake of their art. Of Shelley he wrote: "He earned immediate opprobrium and more than a century of calumny but he lifted himself out of a premature old age of exhaustion, into a brighter element of intellectual vitality, and a new lease of poetic inspiration." No doubt Read hoped his own scandalous elopement would do the same. In the garden of the Mall Studio he wrote his novel, The Green Child, which was admired by many but did not solve the problem of earning enough to pay for two households: his first wife and their son John had remained in Edinburgh.

It was at this time that my father was given works of art by some of the artists he had promoted in his writing – notably Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. He never thought of himself as a collector as such, and though Piet Mondrian was at one point a neighbour in Hampstead, it never occurred to my father to scrape together enough money to buy one of his works. In 1936, he curated the Surrealist exhibition in the Burlington Galleries, and was given, as tokens of appreciation, works by Yves Tanguy, Paul Klee, Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Graham Sutherland, Joan Miró, Jean Cocteau, Alexander Calder and – a gift from his friend Roland Penrose – a small Picasso.

By the time we moved to Yorkshire, there were around a hundred works of art in his collection – some, it has to be said, by lesser artists such as Peggy Guggenheim's daughter, Pegeen, but almost all of it given to my father by artists whom he had encouraged and defended at a time when modern art was widely despised. To visiting neighbours, whose works of art were either portraits of ancestors or scenes of fox hunting, the art at Stonegrave was quite astonishing. The first work to greet them was a gouache by Congo, the chimpanzee, and among the modernist paintings there were Piranesi prints, bought by my mother at country-house sales, and more to her taste. In the drawing room there were still lives by Patrick Heron, the only two works ever bought by my father. The painting by Miró also hung in the drawing room, together with a translucent stringed figure by Naum Gabo. Over the mantelpiece in my father's study was Studies for Sculpture by Henry Moore. On one end of his desk, there was a charming mobile by Calder, supposedly a grasshopper but with, to our embarrassment, a mammal's private parts; on the other end, he had a beautiful wooden Single Form by Barbara Hepworth. In addition, there were works on display in the house by Ben Nicholson, Victor Pasmore, Kurt Schwitters, Paul Nash, William Scott, Reg Butler, Alfred Wallis, Paul Klee and Oskar Kokoschka.

Strangely, although my father lived to see the struggling artists he had championed become millionaires, he never considered the value of the works of art he possessed, nor thought of selling them to alleviate the financial anxiety he felt until his death. In the event, they were to provide my mother with the means to remain at Stonegrave for a quarter-century or so after he died. One by one, they would be removed from the wall, to be replaced with convincing replicas, but a residue of the collection remained in the possession of us five children. Three of these works – the works by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Paul Nash – are to be offered at Bonhams New Bond Street in November's Modern British Art sale. The collage by Kurt Schwitters and a painting by Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, will be in two February sales: Impressionist & Modern and Post-War & Contemporary, respectively.

In a sense, my father's vision of himself as a Celtic monk was accurate, but it was contemporary art, not the Christian religion, that was preserved at Stonegrave. The conversion was complete: Ryedale is now thick with cultural events. The sadness is that my father's return to his roots did not liberate his muse as he had hoped.

Piers Paul Read FRSL is an award-winning English novelist, historian and biographer.

Sale: Modern British and Irish Art
Wednesday 22 November at 2pm
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