Arts: Clerk of works: Herbert Read set standards in British art criticism that have rarely been matched since. Iain Gale considers his enduring influence


'He has no regard for the appearance of the object . . . He will imagine what a reclining woman would look like if flesh and blood were translated into stone'


'Blake was inspired by a vision that was too mystical to be wholly communicable . . . a way of feeling which had prevailed five hundred years before'


'The whole spirit of Rococo is distilled and crystallised in a single figure by the master of Kleinplastik, Franz Anton Bustelli . . . the darling of the epoch'

What does it take to make an art critic? A grounding in art history? A questioning intellect? The ability to write? All three. But what does it take to make a great art critic? Try this. Work as a bank clerk, fight in a world war and then become a civil servant. Look after 'Domestic Glass' in a museum, write poetry and articles on 18th-century pottery.

Such was the unlikely background of Herbert Read, who did all of these things before becoming one of the greatest voices on art this country has produced. Although criticised today for his advocacy of the tame, safe abstraction espoused by Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore, his taste and influence was far more wide-ranging. Had Read seen his vision of a British museum of modern art realised, then the collection now on show at the Leeds City Art Gallery - 'Herbert Read: A British Vision of World Art' - is the one he might have curated. Although this was not his only great scheme (he also tried to found a Bauhaus in Edinburgh), Read was no dreamer. He was the realist who dragged British art into the modern world and made International Modernism accessible to a wide audience. It is largely to him that several generations of British readers owe their understanding of modern art.

Herbert Read was born in 1893, the eldest son of a farming family in the North Riding of Yorkshire. It was not an easy childhood. With the death of his father in 1903 the family lost everything. Read supplemented an elementary education by attending evening classes and in 1909 went to work for a local savings bank. By 1912, though, he had enrolled at Leeds University to read English and French literature. In the First World War, Read served as an officer at Ypres and the Somme, wrote evocative poems and was twice decorated. Demobbed in 1919, he joined the Civil Service. By 1931 he had become Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University. His meteoric rise demands some explanation.

Although he worked for three years at the Ministry of Labour and the Treasury, in 1922 Read managed to transfer to the Ceramics department of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Over the previous three years Read had preserved his sanity by writing poetry and literary criticism for the Criterion, whose editor, that other famous bank clerk, T S Eliot, he had met in 1917. But the seeds of connoisseurship and philosophy had been sown earlier in Leeds. While a bank clerk, Read had gained a grass-roots grounding in Ruskinian socialism and anarchism. At the Leeds Art Club he became aware of the key critical debates of his day put forward by Eliot, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. He studied Nietzschean philosophy and absorbed the writings of Bergson.

In London during the War, Read had met Pound and Lewis, and by the 1920s was under the posthumous influence of the modernist thinker T E Hulme (killed in the trenches in 1917), and through him the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer. In particular, Read admired Worringer's theory that geometric and organic abstraction, rather than Classicism and Romanticism, were the true opposites in art. Synthesising this with his own variety of Bergsonian elitism, Read created the basis for an aesthetic theory dependent upon intuition.

At the V&A, studying the art of the diverse cultures and periods in the museum, Read became convinced that art did not have to conform to the Mediterranean bias then conventional in British thought. After the Great War the British avant- gardism proposed by the Vorticists had been eclipsed by a safe and unchallenging school of landscape. By-passing the cautious Bloomsbury Post-Impressionism of Roger Fry, Read struck out with an aesthetic based on a specifically Northern understanding of form (although it quickly came to embrace naive, primitive and even child art). In their ability to understand contemporary art, the British, Read realised, were being outpaced by the Europeans, and in his writings he now began to lay the ground which would enable them to understand modern art. As the painter Patrick Heron suggests, 'If you asked Braque or Picasso who was their supporter in England there would only be one person they would tell you of.'

Read's annus mirabilis was 1929. Appointed personal assistant to the director of the V&A, Sir Eric Maclagan, Read was invited to contribute a supplement on the meaning of art to the Listener. It was not a specialist journal and, eloquent yet accessible, Read's writing found a popular audience. Two years later his essay appeared with others as a book (a bestseller, revised and reprinted in 1968 and 1972). In his first foray into art criticism, Read set the pattern for the future, seeking to articulate his own feelings and to pass them on to as large an audience as possible. Always a poet at heart, he viewed art criticism as a form of poetry - its dual purpose cathartic and didactic. 'The poet', he wrote, 'must use words which are bandied about in the daily give-and-take of conversation.' Read's prose was never the arcane artspeak common to many of our own contemporary critics, but an intelligent, intelligible means of communication.

In the role of interpreter, Read began to seek out artists who would fulfil his notions. Through Maclagan he met Henry Moore, who guided him to Hampstead, where in 'a nest of gentle artists' he found Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and such European exiles as Mondrian and Moholy-Nagy. Hampstead made him. In Art Now, published in 1933 and revised in 1952, Read nominated the major artists of his day, works by many of whom are now on view in Leeds. Here Hampstead artists rub shoulders with the School of Paris, Surrealists co-exist with Tachistes, Abstract Expressionists with European Constructivists.

Unlike other critics, Read followed a Reynoldsian tradition of even-handedness. Even in his sixties, as ambassador for British art, Read was able to rise above the American critic Clement Greenberg's dismissal of Moore and British art as 'provincial' and 'safe' to champion Pollock and Sam Francis. Although he was never afraid to dispute with those, such as Kenneth Clark, William Coldstream and Graham Greene, who opposed him, Read's task was primarily to explain.

Read's modernism was neither brutal nor artificial. His rural background reinforced a belief that great art was based on an innate goodness. 'The work of art,' he wrote, 'is in some sense a liberation of the personality . . . we contemplate a work of art and immediately there is a release.' If there is one thing that can be said to unite his diverse passions, it is the poetry he found in equal measure in Poussin and Claude, Nicholson and Moore. Read understood that what is really required of an art critic is the ability to see beyond the object to a universal truth, and to be able to communicate that truth. It was part of his purpose to save British culture by allying it with a much wider, global aesthetic in which tradition and innovation were united. It is in his ability to comment with equal authority on Rococo porcelain, Romantic painting and modern sculpture (see inserts) that his greatness lies. Read's achievement demonstrates by counter-example the dangers of bigotry that lie in the furthering of one cause. 'The ultimate values of art', he wrote, 'transcend the individual and his time and circumstance.' Today, as Read's dream of a museum devoted to modern art seems set to become a reality in London, we should hope that his successors will show a similar sensitivity.

Leeds City Art Gallery to 5 Feb

Catalogue, Lund Humphries pounds 18

(Photograph omitted)