Benedict Read (1945-2016)

Ben, as we all knew him, is probably best remembered for his pioneering work on Victorian sculpture, but he also had a vast knowledge of nineteenth and twentieth-century European art and architecture and a keen interest in earlier periods as well.

The son of the eminent art-critic, Sir Herbert Read and Margaret, née Ludwig, an accomplished professional musician, he studied English Literature at Oxford University and then Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where he subsequently taught and held the post of Deputy Witt Librarian. Ben became Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Leeds in 1990 and Director of the MA Sculpture Studies programme, under the auspices of the Henry Moore Foundation. Ben had a great love of sculpture, his enthusiasm was infectious and he inspired several generations of students, many of whom are PMSA members.

Ben played a key part in the PMSA from its embryonic beginnings at the Sculpture in the North conference in 1991 when Jo Darke, the PMSA’s founder, first proposed the idea of a Public Monument Association. She turned to Ben and asked if he would support it and become the first Chairman, a role he took on with typical modesty, but characteristic energy. His initial response, however, was to suggest that ‘Sculpture’ should feature in the Association’s title and he later insisted on this, following its official inaugural meeting later that year.

Since that time Ben has been the firm, but kindly guiding hand, behind the PMSA – a father figure of the Association. It was he, who helped to select the Vice-Presidents and when he decided to step down as Chairman to assume a more backseat role as Deputy Chair, a post he shared with Ian Leith, he was instrumental in recruiting the new Chairmen.

Ben knew the great and the good and, if a project faltered, he always knew the best way to get it done. His academic and social connections were of enormous importance to the PMSA. He generously drew on both his Courtauld and family contacts to recruit key people into the Association and particularly to the Regional Archive Centres that drove the National Recording Project (NRP) forward. One of Ben’s key appointments was Edward Morris, who sadly also died this year. Edward made an outstanding contribution to the PMSA, leading the Recording Project and taking responsibility for the Public Sculpture of Britain series of publications.

Ben too always remained closely involved with the NRP and sat on the Editorial Board of the Public Sculpture of Britain. He played an important part in securing the first Lottery grant which enabled the NRP to become properly established. Ian Leith remembers ‘Pursuing the Lottery funding would not have been possible without Ben and the smooth management of our finances would not have been possible without his late brother, Tom Read .’

Ben was also a tremendous support in setting up the PMSA’s prestigious academic Sculpture Journal and was Chair of the Sculpture Journal’s Editorial Board, from its inception in 1997 until his death. Former PMSA Trustee and Sculpture Journal Editor, Margaret Garlake acknowledges ‘His contribution to the Journal was, I think, inseparable from his contribution as an historian – which was huge.’

While Derek Pullen, PMSA Trustee with responsibility for Conservation, reflects ‘Ben was an unfailing source of wise advice. His enthusiasm for some rather esoteric sculptors, of whom I was ignorant would lead me, and I’m sure many others, into aspects of sculpture history, that would have remained unexplored.’

Ben was a man of small physical, but of enormous academic stature. He wore his learning lightly, he was approachable, supportive and kind. He had a wonderfully impish sense of humour and told fascinating anecdotes about his experiences in the art world, his upbringing and particularly about his father and Henry Moore. He was loved by us all.

Benedict Read: An appreciation

by Dr Mark Stocker

I was saddened but not over-surprised to hear the news of Ben Read’s death on 20 October. His brave lifelong battle with diabetes was always likely to impact on his lifespan.

In his lifetime, he achieved much however, and more conventional obituaries and his Wikipedia entry will say more on this. I was fortunate to have him as my PhD supervisor (1981-85), part of a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between the University of Hull, where I had a scholarship, and Ben, then at the Courtauld Institute, who had the specialist knowledge lacking at Hull. My topic was Queen Victoria’s favourite sculptor, Sir Edgar Boehm; Ben helped shape, direct and support my initial fumblings and stumblings in research, advising me how to approach both individuals and august institutions such as the Royal Archives to get essential access to sculpture and archival information alike. Importantly, he also told me when to stop doing the precious, perfectionist and ultimately procrastinating collation of material and to start writing instead.

Since then (nearly thirty-five years ago), I don’t think I’ve stopped writing. Ben carefully read each draft chapter, generally warmly endorsing it but occasionally pouncing on a slip: when I used ‘what’ instead of ‘that’, he asked me whether I was of the Ernie Wise school of art history! His mischievous but never malign sense of humour was something to cherish. I’m sure a similar story could be told many times over by past students at the Courtauld and Leeds, his protégés and later friends, who have gone on to do great things and owe him much.

I wish Ben had published more, but he spread himself wide, whether it was in the PMSA and establishing and running the Sculpture Journal (I feel sure he put in the occasional good word for my relatively frequent articles and reviews!), as Chairman of the Leeds Art Fund, or as a sensible, moderating influence on the brilliant, but wayward and heavily politicised, School of Fine Art at Leeds.

Initially he had worked as a photographic librarian, and the only critical things I ever heard about him emanated from the higher-paid Courtauld faculty, wondering why he had more postgraduate students than them! What Ben did publish, is a model of good scholarship: crisp, lucid, wise, relevant, jargon-free, and perhaps above all presenting common-sensed and credible coverage of whatever the theme in question. Only recently I was reading his chapter on sculpture in Anne Gray’s Australian exhibition catalogue The Edwardians: Secrets and Desires (2004), while another important essay laid the foundations implicit in its title: ‘Sculpture in Britain between the wars’ (1986). But it was his most famous publication, Victorian Sculpture(1982), that put the whole subject on the map, and the rest is history.

Ben was a relatively private person, and it was years before he told me much about his famous father, Sir Herbert Read, and Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who enjoyed ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’ status in his early life. He was also an Arsenal bondholder, and clashed fiercely with the late John House, a Spurs man, who had responded entirely seriously when I told him of the graffiti I had recently seen, declaring ‘Hoddle is God’. Even Arsène Wenger was not God for Ben, however. He was a quietly devout Roman Catholic, and, as I write this, he will shortly be having what will surely be a beautifully moving send-off at the Church of the Holy Ghost and St Stephen in West London. God bless you, Ben Read!

If you would like to leave a tribute to Ben, please add it in the Comments section below.

Aurora Corio