“A Wilderness of Stone and Brick”: Herbert Read’s Leeds

Earlier this year our Central Library hosted a screening of the documentary film To Hell With Culture, an immersive study of the life and work of Sir Herbert Read, in partnership with Hyde Park Picture House. Alongside that screening we put together a small exhibition of materials we hold about Herbert Read, specifically that which focuses on his early life in North Yorkshire and Leeds. Much of that exhibition is reproduced below.

Early years
Herbert Read was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1893. The Read family lived at Muscoates Grange near Nunnington, about four miles south of Kirbymoorside.

The Ryedale Guide (1912) by Ernest Edwin Taylor

In a memoir of his youth, The Innocent Eye, Read writes about the rural landscape around him, including visits to local landmarks such as Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle – both can be seen below, along with an extract from the aforementioned memoir.

This image taken from Helmsley Castle, Yorkshire (1952) by Sir Charles Reed Peers

Beyond [Helmsley] market-place stood the castle with its ivied keep, still massive and imposing in spite of its deliberate destruction by the Parliamentarians. Here again was a stage-setting for my later romantic notions…[S]heep grazed in the empty moats and jackdaws nested in the ragged turrets…[R]ievaulx played an important part in the growth of my imagination, but I cannot tell how much of its beauty and romance was absorbed in these years of childhood, how much built on those memories in later years. It was the farthest western limit of my wanderings, and so lovely then in its solitude and desolation, that I think my childish mind, in spite of its overweening objectivity, must have surrounded to its subtle atmosphere.

Herbert Read – The Innocent Eye

Move to the West Riding
In 1903 Read’s father, also Herbert, died; Read’s mother, Eliza, moved, first to Kirbymoorside, and then to Leeds to work as a laundry manager. Both Read and his eldest brother, William, were sent to Crossley and Porter Orphan Home School in Halifax.

This image taken from Halifax: A Commercial and Industrial Centre (1915) by George P. Wadsworth and published by the Halifax Chamber of Commerce

Herbert, William, and their younger brother, Charles, moved to live with their mother in Leeds in 1908. During that time they lived in a number of homes – including St. Ann’s Hill Hostel in Headingley and 24 Delph Lane in Woodhouse.

November 1981 Delph Lane leads from Woodhouse Street to Woodhouse Ridge where quarrying once took place. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

The family attended St. Michael’s Church in Headingley, where Herbert and William were confirmed in 1911.

Undated. View of the remains of the ancient Shire Oak enclosed by iron railings. It collapsed in 1941 during a gale and a fragment of it was preserved in the Lady Chapel of St Michael’s Church, at the junction of Otley Road and St Michael’s Road, centre. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

Clerk work
In 1909 Herbert obtained a job as clerk for the Leeds, Skyrac & Morley Trustees Saving Bank, in the Bank headquarters at the corner of Bond Street and Basinghall Street.

28th April 1942. View of Leeds Skyrac & Morley Trustee Savings Bank at 30 Bond Street on junction with Basinghall Street. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

His name can be seen in a 1910 Annual Report from the bank, in the list of Names of Officers who have given security.

Read’s impressions of the busy city, and its central square, are captured in his book Annals of Innocence and Experience:

The fundamental contrasts between town and country, industry and agriculture, wealth and poverty, were forced upon me by my daily experiences in Leeds. Up to the age of fifteen I had no knowledge of town life; for the next six years I was to see little else. For three years, with only one week’s break in the year, I walked these streets – I could not afford a tram fare. From my home on the outskirts to the Bank in the middle of the city; from the head-office of the Bank to the branches at Armley, Beeston and Chapeltown, I passed through areas in which factories were only relieved by slums, slums by factories – a wilderness of stone and brick, with soot falling like black snow. Drab and stunted wage-slaves drifted through the stink and clatter; tramcars moaned and screeched along their glistening rails, spluttering blue electric sparks. These same wage-slaves brought their savings to the Bank – we accepted deposits of three-pence and upwards – greasy coins that blackened the fingers that counted them, and were then entered into passbooks permeated by grime and sweat. For a year or two my way home passed through the City Square, where a political agitator sometimes drew a crowd round him; and sometimes I would stop and listen.

Herbert Read – Annals of Innocence and Experience
Leeds City Square as Reed knew it, 1911. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

To heaven with culture
In 1911 Read met, through his brother William, a Leeds tailor named William Prior Read (no relation). Prior Read, of Stanley Drive in Roundhay, unofficially ‘adopted’ Herbert, introducing him to many influential European writers through his personal library.

29th September 1941. Image shows Street Lane near the junction with Roman View, just off the picture to the left. No. 56, left, is the grocery business of C and E Hobson. The shop sign reads ‘Hobson’s Park House Supply Stores’. The adjoining property is number 54, followed by a pair of semi-detached houses numbering 52 Street Lane and 1 Stanley Drive, the road which leads off on the far side of the houses. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

Read dedicated his 1926 volume of Collected Poems: 1913 – 1925 to his older mentor.

In addition, Read was using the time available to him after finishing work at the bank around 3.30-4.00pm each day to seek further self-education. He writes in his memoir The Contrary Experience: Autobiographies of visiting “Evening schools and the public library” – the latter almost certainly being the Reference department of Leeds Central Library, at that time based in the very room (Local and Family History) where this exhibition was displayed.

Undated, View looks from the gallery of the Reference Library onto the Reading Room of the Central Library. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

The Leeds Arts Club
Not long after meeting William Prior Read, Herbert joined the Leeds Arts Club – a centre for modernist thinking, radical thought and experimental art, launched in 1903 and, by the time of Read’s involvement, based at 8 Blenheim Terrace, near the University of Leeds.

Blenheim Terrace, 1953. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

Read met many influential figures in the cultural world through the Arts Club – including Frank Rutter, then Curator of Leeds Art Gallery, with whom Read would co-found the journal Arts & Letters.

Herbert also encountered the artist Jacob Kramer at the Arts Club – Kramer and Read became friends and, in the Central Library’s Jacob Kramer collection, can be seen a book gifted to Kramer by Read.


University days and The Great War
Read enrolled at the University of Leeds in 1912. There, he studied across a wide range of disciplines, often following his own inclinations more than any formal programme of education. Read was taken under the wing of his professor of English, F. W. Moorman, described by Read as “the most inspiring teacher in the university.”

Yorkshire Dialect Poems (1919) by F.W. Moorman

Also central to Read’s University experience was the Vice-Chancellor, Michael Sadler, who hosted meetings of the Leeds Arts Club at his Buckingham House home. Sadler was additionally one of Britain’s foremost collectors of modern art, a collection Read had access to through his mother’s friend, Miss Wallace – Sadler’s housekeeper.

1983 View of Buckingham House, Headingley Lane in March 1983. The house was built around 1840, it was recently used by Leeds Social Services. Prior to that, Buckingham House was the home of Michael Ernest Sadler, educationist and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds from 1911. Sadler was also president of the avant-garde Leeds Arts Club, and an influential collector of modern art. The Arts Club would occasionally meet at Buckingham House. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

In 1915 Read was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Green Howards and faced horrifying conflict at Ypres and the Somme. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 and the Distinguished Service Order in 1918.

This account of Read’s wartime experience is taken from Officers of the Green Howards : Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment),(formerly the 19th Foot): 1688-1920 (1920) by Michael Lloyd Ferrar

Read’s experiences in the First World War impacted him deeply. His first two books were war poetry – Songs of Chaos (1915) and The Naked Warriors (1919). After the War, Read moved to London and became one of Britain’s most celebrated cultural figures.

Herbert Read died in 1968. In the last decade of his life he paid tribute to his friend Jacob Kramer, signing the exhibition catalogue for a major retrospective of Kramer’s work that took place at Leeds Art Gallery in 1960.

Within a year of Read’s death the ninth issue of The Malahat, a Canadian literary journal, was dedicated to his life and work.

Both this and the Jacob Kramer catalogue shown in the images above form part of the Central Libary’s Jacob Kramer collection

It was not until the 1990s, however, that his legacy was more fully re-appraised, with the opening of an exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery in 1993: Herbert Read – A British Vision of World Art.

Alongside Read’s own autobiographical writings referenced above, much of this exhibition and article was researched using the biographical chapters in Herbert Read – A British Vision of World Art, as well as The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read (1990) by James King.

Contact our Local and Family History department on localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk or 0113 37 86982 to view any of the material mentioned in this article.

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