Herbert Read, ‘Pope of Modern Art’ and Editor of The Burlington Magazine (1933-1939)

In 2007 Benedict (Ben) Read, esteemed art historian and son of Herbert Read, wrote an essay about his father’s editorship of The Burlington Magazine.[1] More recently, he kindly gave the Index Blog permission to re-publish some excerpts from it. Sadly Ben Read died on 20 October 2016 and was unable to edit personally this abridged contribution, which is here published in memoriam.


Herbert Read in 1943 

Herbert Read was appointed Editor of the Burlington largely through the decision of Roger Fry, who had been closely associated with the magazine from its start in 1903. Fry was not entirely a supporter of Read for the position, writing to Kenneth Clark on August 4th 1933: ‘I find a general consensus of opinion that Herbert Read who is giving up the Edinbro’ professorship and is free, is the best man as Editor and I’m inclined to think they are right in spite of my great distaste for his writings and his general weltanschauung. He seems to have wide general interests and all-round curiosity, which is more to the point than great learning along narrow lines. So I expect we shall make him. I hope you approve […].’[2] Fry had earlier expressed doubts about Read’s literary standpoint, commenting on his English Prose Style that he disliked it on the whole, ‘partly because he don’t [sic] a quarter understand Sterne and also he’s one of this neo-Thomist lot with a whole bag of metaphysical nostrums on his back.’[3]



5843000771_e6042faca3_b-1.jpgHerbert Read’s reputation today is almost certainly that of the great Champion of Modern Art, the ‘Pope of Modern Art’ no less (a title awarded him by an as yet unidentified American journalist in the 1950s). So it might be surprising to those who know him as such that he should become editor of the principal English language art historical journal, especially at this moment. In July 1933 he had published the major manifesto of European Modern Art, Art Now [cover illustrated above] Set in ‘modern’ Gill Sans type, it dealt with the Psychology of Art, the significance of Primitive Art and the break-up of the Academic Tradition. It described Symbolism and the significance of Cézanne and Matisse before going on to devote a whole chapter to the German Expressionist School, another to the theory of Abstract Form, before finishing off with Picasso, Surrealism and the art of Paul Klee. It featured among its illustrations work by Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Léger, Ernst and Masson and a large selection of German and Belgian Expressionists. But most importantly – and here we recognise the Herbert Read known to later generations – it included illustrations of work by Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth as well as William Roberts, Wyndham Lewis, Roy Le Maistre and an early Francis Bacon. It thus integrated British modernist artists of that moment with their European confrères.


Read’s service as Editor of the Burlington lasted from 1933 to 1939, but he continued to be closely involved with it till his death in 1968. Among those who first appeared on its pages during his editorship were such later art historical stars as Edward Croft-Murray, Martin Davies, Otto Kurz, Denis Mahon, Millard Meiss, Nikolaus Pevsner, John Pope-Hennessy, John Rewald, Charles Stirling and Ellis Waterhouse. He published significant articles by Paul Ganz, Richard Offner, Erwin Panofsky and Margaret Rickert. [4] He also wrote extremely forcefully about the need to welcome and support the refugee art historians coming over from Germany.

In the meantime, he maintained his other interests. In 1934 he published the first monograph on Henry Moore. At about the same time he wrote the poem ‘Cranach’ – note the presence of ‘old’ art in his poetry, which he considered to be his main calling in life:

But once upon a time
the oakleaves and the wild boars
Antonio Antonio
the old wound is bleeding.
We are in Silvertown
we have come here with a modest ambition
to know a little bit about the river
eating cheese and pickled onions on a terrace by the Thames.
Sweet Thames! the ferry glides across your bosom
like Leda’s swan.
The factories ah slender graces
sly naked damsels nodding their downy plumes.

7649f5506f5b0c313fe4442819f66532-1.jpgThe last line being the Cranach punch line. In 1936 Read was involved with Roland Penrose in organising the International Surrealist Exhibition [illustrated right] – Fry had of course observed the deadly monotony of their nearly always referring to sex. About this time Read wrote a poem about the early Italian painter Giovanni di Paolo, and this before the publication of John Pope-Hennessy’s monograph on the artist of 1937. Read had a connection with Pope-Hennessy, in that the art historian’s mother, Dame Una Pope-Hennesy had sent Read down to talk with her son at school and advise him about this interest and as Pope-Hennessy acknowledged in his memoirs, Read had suggested he write his first article for the Burlington in 1937.[5]


Herbert Read left the Burlington in 1939. Peggy Guggenheim, in her memoirs, claimed quite correctly to have lured him away from the magazine. She planned to set up a museum of modern art in London, and Herbert Read was to be its first director.[6] With this in mind he prepared a master list of artists to be represented which – with modifications – formed the basis of the Guggenheim collection now in Venice. In the meantime he acquired a partnership at the publishing firm of Routledge and Kegan Paul, and when the museum idea failed to materialise due to the oncoming World War, it was too late for Read to retrieve the Burlington position. Guggenheim called the magazine ‘stuffy’ and implied that Read thought so too. There is some support for this in a letter Read wrote at the time to a future gadfly of the Burlington, Douglas Cooper: ‘[…] nothing, in another sense, could be deadlier than the Burlington’.[7] But in his farewell ‘Editorial’, dated September 1939 and published in November that year he wrote of ‘the regret with which I resign my position’.[8]

If he was so indifferent to the Burlington, how then can one explain his continuing support after he had left the editorship? With war approaching and while still editor, he had written an editorial that welcomed people attending the International Congress of the History of Art ‘where in an atmosphere free from political or racial prejudice, people of all nations can meet and express their devotion to those values which survive all temporal conflicts’.[9] In September, with London possibly under threat, he actually moved the office to his home in Broom House, near Beaconsfield. [10] In his final editorial he wrote: ‘So long as a supply of paper and the services of a printer can be obtained, we hope to carry on publication, in however restricted a form […] precisely in time of war it is essential to continue the tradition of scholarship.’[11] The Burlington continued publication throughout the war [see on this subject the blogs published here on Edith Hoffmann and Albert C. Sewter, ed.].


Herbert Read by Patrick Heron (1950), National Portrait Gallery, London

In July 1945 Read joined the Editorial Board in place of Campbell Dodgson and continued on the Board until his death in 1968. According to Benedict Nicolson, during his own term of office as Editor, Herbert Read ‘was invariably, and automatically, chosen as Chairman of the Board, being the senior member present, with the widest and longest experience of the workings of the Magazine. It is impossible to speak without emotion of his services to us since the war; of his undeviating kindness and loyalty; of his unique combination of high-mindedness and common sense. The staff dreaded the receipt of a letter of resignation when his health began to fail, but that letter was never sent; and often recently at great inconvenience to himself, and still far from well, he would make the long journey from Stonegrave to attend a meeting, if he knew some important decision was to be reached. At the head of the table, pale and distinguished, he would sit silent, and everyone would assume that he had lost the thread and was thinking about Coleridge – when suddenly he would put in a quiet remark; and there would be no more talk. The matter was settled.’[12] Among the important decisions to be made was the change in proprietorship of the magazine in January 1964, in which Read was involved. And probably the last written work of his career was the obituary notice for his old friend and colleague, the German art-historian Will Grohmann which he sent to the Burlington on May 20th 1968 and which was published in July that year, within a month of Read’s own death on June 12th 1968.[13]


Having started with Fry and Read, I would like to finish with them. As I prepared the original lecture on which this article is based, I became more and more intrigued by the incredible parallels that link Herbert Read and Roger Fry. Both had an encyclopaedic knowledge of European art of the past. Both had close associations with avant-garde artists of their own time. Both wrote on Psychology and Art, on Children’s Art and on so-called Primitive Art. Both were associated with Design Production – Fry with the Omega Workshops, Read with the Design Research Unit. Last but not least, at least in my opinion, was the common and unstinted devotion of both men, in each case for over 30 years until their deaths, to The Burlington Magazine. The Burlington spotted this, and in their Editorial tribute to Read in August 1968, they began by quoting the Magazine’s Editorial tribute to Roger Fry, published in 1934 and, according to Benedict Nicolson, doubtless written by Read himself who had recently succeeded as editor: ‘This Magazine has lost […] one who was always ready with his help and advice, and who actually devoted a considerable measure of his time to its interests.’[14]

Benedict Read (1945-2016)

Editorial Note. These are excerpts from a longer article by Benedict Read, ‘ “I’m Burlington Bertie”: Herbert Read and ‘The Burlington Magazine’, in Re-reading Read: New Views on Herbert Read, edited by Michael Paraskos, London 2007, pp. 88–101. Published with the permission of the Editor, Michael Paraskos, whom I wish to thank. As I worked with a draft Word Document supplied to me by Ben Read, I have performed some silent edits in the spelling of names and footnotes throughout the text. BP, November 2016.


[1] Benedict Read, ‘ “I’m Burlington Bertie”: Herbert Read and ‘The Burlington Magazine’, in Re-reading Read: New Views on Herbert Read, edited by Michael Paraskos, London 2007, pp. 88–101.

[2] Letters of Roger Fry, ed. Denys Sutton, London 1972, vol. 2, p. 683.

[3] Sutton, p. 632.

[4] See the Editorial by Benedict Nicolson, ‘Herbert Read and the Burlington Magazine’, The Burlington Magazine 110 (August 1968), p. 4.

[5] John Pope-Hennessy, Learning to Look, London 1991, p. 136.

[6] Peggy Guggenheim, Confessions of an Art Addict, London 1960, p. 61.

[7] Quotation from James King, The Last Modern – A Life of Herbert Read, London 1990, p. 181.

[8] Herbert read, ‘To the readers of The Burlington Magazine’, The Burlington Magazine 75 (November 1939), p. 179.

[9] [Herbert Read], ‘Editorial – The History of Art Congress’, The Burlington Magazine 75 (July 1939), p. 3.

[10] Edith Hoffmann, ‘The Magazine in War-Time’, The Burlington Magazine 128 (July 1986), pp. 478-80.

[11] Hoffmann, p. 479.

[12]‘Editorial – Herbert Read’, pp. 4-5.

[13]‘Obituary – Will Grohmann’, The Burlington Magazine 110 (July 1968), p. 413

[14]‘Editorial – Herbert Read’, p. 4.

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