Obituary: Margaret Read

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The Independent Online
As a Catholic convert, but married to the Anarchist and agnostic, poet and critic Sir Herbert Read, one might think that Margaret Read had few opportunities for keeping her own faith tuned. In fact she was three times lucky.

When she was a young woman - she and Read having dramatically eloped from Edinburgh - Henry Moore lent them his studio in the Mall Studios in Belsize Park, north London, where her immediate neighbours were Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth with Moore himself just round the corner. But - pour combler le bonheur - there was the Roman Catholic church of St Dominic, within, she might have said, whistling distance. "There was a little passage and if you went to the priory and said a little prayer, there was a movie there, just opposite the passage; you said your prayer, nipped out of the church and into the movie." Was it a fluke that she was so close to a Catholic church? "Oh, a pure fluke, and there was the monastery at the end of our garden."

There would be a much larger monastery years later when Herbert Read, a born Yorkshireman who had always longed to return to his beginnings, found a lovely old house, near Kirbymoorside, not far from the farm where he was born - and within easy reach of Ampleforth College and Monastery. There Margaret Ludwig, a professional viola player who had once been in the orchestra at Glyndebourne, found a rich religious and musical life, with intelligent and musical monks - and a college for the three Read boys; and, even closer, Hovingham Hall, childhood home of the later Duchess of Kent. There she invented, organised and inspired three wonderfully idiosyncratic music and opera festivals.

But in the years between, the war years and late Forties, the family lived in Buckinghamshire which she rather despised as suburban. It was a simple house in the village of Seer Green that saw a coming and going of some of the most eminent artists, writers and musicians of the time. A string quartet was formed and, at the famous Mayflower barn at Jordans, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears and Poulenc and many others accepted her urgent pleas to come and perform.

At Broom House a Bible was always placed beside the bed when T.S. Eliot was expected. Once when the (wealthy) Kenneth Clarks announced that they would "drop in", "The Clarks are coming slumming," she warned. Naum Gabo came several times, irrepressible and unstoppable; he talked sculpture, philosophy, politics in his rich Russian accent, keeping Herbert up into the small hours while the hostess resolutely went to bed. Oskar Kokoschka appeared bringing Herbert a lovely watercolour of a fish (not many English artists whom Herbert Read had helped to fame were so generous) and George Hoellering was around, the Hungarian film producer who had just finished his film of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, making quite a pass at Mrs Read; too much of a professional charmer to be taken seriously. (She was unimpressed by the film.) Her gibes about some of the visitors were witty but never malicious. Who was it whom she described as a rose-red pansy half as old as time?

Karl Mannheim, the sociologist, came to lunch at the round Finnish dining table, with a swivelling serving platform on top which you had to turn yourself to seize the food. It showed you up as either greedy and pushing or as timorous, with probably an inferiority complex, he pronounced. "Ludo" Read was quite pleased with that analysis, and some time later the movable servery disappeared. Altogether, modern Finnish furniture was not her choice and if there was any audible disagreement between the spouses it was not over the most obvious subject of religion but something one might label "The Battle of Styles". Black leather and steel armchairs and glass tables furnished even some of the 18th-century Stonegrave House, in Yorkshire; but now and again Lady R came back from a country auction, pleased like a Yorkshire cat at having purchased some heavy mahogany piece with knobs - which Sir Herbert called names and tried to banish into the garage.

On the other hand she was extremely fond of their modern artist friends, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Patrick Heron and their works - but quite undaunted by them. Once when Hepworth, much "into nature", criticised her for wearing high heels, she looked amazed, saying - "What's wrong - cows walk on them, don't they?"

The last two years of her life brought her the third and closest encounter with her church: the convent of St Nicholas in west London, where she was most admirably looked after by the nuns; and there she died with six nuns surrounding her, saying the Rosary.

Leonie Cohn

Margaret Ludwig, viola player: born Aberdeen 27 March 1905; married 1936 Herbert Read (Kt 1953, died 1968; three sons, one daughter); died London 10 March 1996.