Read and Spender—unlikely double act

Whatever—or whoever—could have brought publicly together ‘pylon’ poet Stephen Spender (1909 – 95) and Herbert Read (1893–1968), art critic,  professional writer of introductionsto other people’s books and self-styled anarchist? This press photograph gives few clues, although the most evident seems to be the large posters advertising The Sunday Times, in front of which the two men are standing. The photo was one of many in a small archive of similar material that turned up in an auction a few years ago.

The photo appears to date from around the mid thirties, which may suggest that both men were snapped at the London International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, which was covered by al the major London papers, including the Sunday Times. However, there is no real reason why the two very different writers should have been grouped together. Spender admitted that Read had become a friend ever since the older man’s sympathetic review of his Poems (1933), but Read’s name is missing entirely from the published Journals, 1939 – 82, of Spender, who never showed much interest in Surrealism. It does not follow, of course, that there should be any connection between the two figures, who may have been snapped by a Sunday Times photographer while they visited the Exhibition.

An alternative circumstance for this pairing may have been the Spanish Civil War, which was dividing intellectuals in the mid thirties. Both Read and Spender would have supported the Communists, and indeed Spender reported to Read at this time that he had become a communist.

While Spender’s reputation has been enhanced since his death. John Sutherland’s biography and the Stephen Spender Trust has seen to that, Read’s profile, despite a biography  (The Last Romantic) has faded somewhat. The view of his contemporary and fellow critic, Geoffrey Grigson is fair, I think, and echoes my own views of Read, who was once such a ubiquitous presence in the literary world.

‘He was no genius, he had no very acute perception… of the arts of painting, sculpture or writing. I would even say there was something to Wyndham Lewis’s charge that he had never looked a picture in the face, although he knew the kind of picture to look in the face…Not much of a poet, to tell the truth not much of a writer, he was an art apostle who stuck to his preaching…’ [R.M.Healey]

4 thoughts on “Read and Spender—unlikely double act

  1. PaulH

    I also cannot see why Spender and Read should have been snapped together, and find it difficult to believe that Spender would have gone to LISE in 1936, as he hated surrealism, writing in 1943 ‘With surrealism came the complete breakdown of the attempt to understand the dreams within and the nightmares outside our civilisation’, which also shows that he also did not understand it one jot. He also did not think much of Read’s poetry, criticising it for having insufficient awareness of the reality of evil. Politically they were poles apart, Spender the card-carrying communist and certainly by the late 1930s an apologist for Stalinist Russia, and Read becoming converted to anarchism by the Spanish Civil War. Still, Read is commemorated in Poet’s Corner and Spender and Grigson aint.
    I cannot let the final comment go unchallenged. Neither Grigson nor Lewis had a good word to say about anyone, and although Grigson and Read were co-founders of the ICA in 1947 I doubt they thought they had much in common. I would bet that Read would reply to Grigson’s comment in the same way as he did to Priestley’s poor review of LISE ‘As if a man should spit against the wind; the filth returns in’s face’. Now, Lewis was Read’s arch-enemy and said far fouler things against him, as only a fascist can say of an anarchist: a photo of those two together would really be something!

    1. Tommi Uschanov

      Be that as it may, the (non-Sunday) Times on 22 December 1937 had a letter in praise of Lewis, on the occasion of his first exhibition in 16 years, initiated by Henry Moore and signed by both Read and Spender (as well as Eliot, Auden and many more).

      Regarding the photo, looking at the Sunday Times quickly comes up with the solution: it's the 15-day Sunday Times book exhibition held at Dorland Hall, Regent Street, from 2 to 16 November 1936. On Saturday, 14 November, Spender spoke on "Modern Poetry" at 2.30 PM and the discussion was chaired by Read.

  2. R.M.Healey

    It's true that Lewis and Grigson had ( and still have ) enemies. The Mexican poet Michael Schmidt still harbours a completely irrational animus against Grigson for something he did or said many years ago–some people are just petty minded.But Grigson had praise for many poets and artists, as his books testify, and Lewis was generous to up and coming artists, like Francis Bacon, among others. But it's just a fact of literary life–which breeds envy and hubris–that people who take a stand on sound principles ( like Grigson) will annoy and anger the over sensitive.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *