Occupants of the Jaguar stalled on a lonely Yorkshire road were grateful to the wiry, gray-haired farmer who had quickly repaired their broken distributor. Their thanks turned to amazement when they recognized the impromptu mechanic as England's foremost philosopher of art. For one of the paradoxes about Sir Herbert Read is his combination of a vast knowledge of practical things and the intellectual aloofness of the creative artist.
This year's Charles Eliot Norton professor was born in 1893, a Yorkshireman descended from generations of Yorkshiremen, all farmers. His whole outlook on life has been mellowed by these deep roots; they give him the innately cautious attitude of an English country gentleman. He is quiet, always calm, and reticent--modest to the point of shyness. A friend who has known him for thirty years claims Read is one man about whom no anecdote will ever be told.
Read started writing poetry in boarding school, but his interest in art did not develop until he entered the University of Leeds. At that time, Leeds was a red-brick, utilitarian university which considered itself a guardian of the new age of technology and took pride in little else. Read took a general course for a year, nevertheless, and then began concentrating in law and economics.
The war came in the middle of his senior year, and permanently interrupted his formal education. Even before the war, Read had begun to think in pacifist terms, and it was only a sense of moral obligation that helped him overcome his qualms. "I regarded the war as a conflict between rival imperial powers," he wrote, "which would bring destruction to the peoples engaged." He accepted a commission in 1914.
As a soldier, just as in every other major venture of his life, Read excelled. He quickly rose to the rank of captain and won the D.S.O. for his heroism in battle. But he returned from the trenches horrified by the senseless slaughter he had witnessed, and resolved never again to aid a war effort. The casual thoughts of pre-war days crystallized into an ardent pacifism.
Before Read left Leeds to enter the service he met Robert Orage, editor of New Age, the most influential of the pre-war avant-garde literary periodicals. Orage introduced him to Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and T. E. Hulme, men who were to become guide posts in his synthesis of a literary style and criteria for criticism. Orage was active in the Social Credit movement, advocating a free-money economic system, and he converted the young man to his views. Social credit was not far enough; after the disillusionment of the war, it was easy for Read to make the few jumps to his present position of "philosophical anarchism."
Read is certainly no bomb-throwing extremist. For him, anarchism is a "pie in the sky." He uses it only as a guide to action. In every practical decision he would follow the course leading to a greater degree of government decentralization.
He formulated this political philosophy shortly after the close of the war, but his theory of aesthetics has seen gradual revision. His is a practical approach to art, learned not in the classroom but as an official in London's Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1931, when he became a professor of fine arts at the University of Edinborough, embarrassed officials hastily granted him an M.A. To this, Leeds later added an honorary doctorate. His most recent honor was election to knighthood last New Year.
Basic to Read's philosophy of art is that there is no essential difference between natural philosophy and aesthetic theory. Specifically, he feels that all artistic expressions should combine the formal unity of classicism with the freedom of the Romantics. He has applied this criterion to his criticism of painting, sculpture, and literature, but feels that his background is insufficient for a detailed commentary on music. Creative efforts of his own are only literary; his imagist poetry has been widely acclaimed and The Green Child, an allegorical novel, is considered brilliant.
The paradoxical knack for the practical has long made him wish he had tried the plastic arts. "Friends think I might have made a pretty good sculptor," he says.