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John Read 1923-2011

John Read 1923-2011
01 August 2011 posted by John Wyver

I am immensely sorry to report that the filmmaker John Read died last week. John had been ill for many months, but it was still a shock to learn this tonight from his widow Louise. I will write more about John over the coming days, but for the moment I am posting again my 2008 tribute. You can view his foundational BBC documentary Henry Moore, 1951, here.
From 'Il miglior fabbro', Illuminations blog, 25 November 2008
The son of the influential critic Herbert Read, John directed British television's first documentary film about a living artist, Henry Moore, in 1951. His subsequent thoughtful and sensitive studies of painters and sculptors in the 1950s defined the forms for film profiles of artists. Those of us who continue to make arts documentaries are all the children of John Read.

Read grew up in what his father called the ‘modernist fortress’ of Hampstead, where the family’s friends and neighbours included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. Passionate about film, he turned his bedroom into a 35mm cinema and admired the work of John Grierson and the British documentary filmmakers of the 1930s.

A polemic printed in Sight & Sound in 1948 secured him a job as an assistant to Grierson, and from there he went to the BBC. At that time almost all programmes were transmitted live from studios, but Read was able to use film for his Henry Moore profile. This was partly because the sculptures were too bulky to bring in any quantity to the studio and Moore’s ethos stressed how they should be seen in natural light against the landscape.

The half-hour film follows the creation of the Reclining Figure that the artist was making for the site of the Festival of Britain. (This sculpture also features in Illuminations' film The Art of Henry Moore.) It opens with the artist’s hands, working with tools, carving stone and modelling clay. The impulse to capture creation on celluloid is strong throughout the film. A cut from a blank sketchbook page to a close-up of Moore’s eyes, underlined as so much of the film is by William Alwyn’s music, is intended to suggest ‘inspiration’. For the viewer, there is a particular fascination in witnessing those aspects of Moore’s working processes, especially the casting of bronze, that he was prepared to reveal to the camera.

After Henry Moore, between 1953 and 1957 John Read made twelve films for the BBC, four of which were produced in association with (and distributed as 16mm film prints by) the Arts Council, including  profiles of Graham Sutherland and John Piper. Other subjects for Read during the 1950s included Moore again (he made six films with the artist in total), Stanley Spencer and L. S. Lowry.

In all of his work Read focuses on a direct encounter with the artist. Critics or presenters rarely appear, and the films aim for only minimal mediation by the camera. There are moments in all of the films where the screen simply shows an artist’s work, albeit with the viewer’s focus and feelings prompted by framing, camera movement and, often, by music. Yet in comparison with many later documentaries, Read’s films can feel strikingly ‘open’ for the viewer to bring her own responses. As the title of his 1960 series The Artist Speaks suggests, Read took a similar approach to interviewing his subjects.

I do not myself believe [Read wrote in 1955] that the art film is a legitimate instrument of criticism. The opportunities for contrived argument are too many and the impact of the screen too authoritative. I prefer to think that sympathetic interpretation and the identification of the audience with the artist are more legitimate objectives. When possible the artist should be in the film to speak for himself and I prefer building up commentary and explanation from the artist’s own opinions and statements, leaving the spectator to form his own judgement.

Read worked for the BBC as a producer until his retirement in 1983, and during these years he produced films with Bernard Leach, Arthur Boyd, Naum Gabo, Peter Blake, Walter Sickert, Patrick Heron, Marc Chagall, Carel Weight and The Brotherhood of Ruralists. He continued to work after his retirement, producing in 1985 with support from the Arts Council the tribute Ben Nicholson about an artist who had eluded the camera while alive.

The basic reason [for making films about artists, Read said in 1983] is simply that you’ve got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that’s constantly threatened. It’s a very materialistic society; it’s an increasingly technological society, or economic society; and there are other values – people do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition.

Read’s concern throughout this immensely distinguished work was the expression and exploration of a British tradition of art. His values and concerns are rural rather than urban, individual rather mass-produced, organic and not technological, modernist but as a critique rather than an embrace of the modern material world. Hence his return time and again to Moore, right through to their last collaboration, Henry Moore at Eighty, in 1978.

I've written and spoken about John Read's work on a host of occasions, including in my book last year Vision On: Film, Television and the Arts in Britain (from which I've adapted some paragraphs for this post). But I remain amazed and distressed that the films are not far better known and that Read himself is not recognised as a filmmaker of fundamental importance. Why and what's the reasons for is a subject I'll return to tomorrow.

The slightly obscure headline, as you'll know, comes from T.S. Eliot's dedication to his poem The Waste Land, in which he acknowledged Ezra Pound, who had helped edit Eliot's modernist masterpiece, as 'the finer craftsman'. Somehow, I'm invariably reminded of this whenever we make a film with a living artist. For me, John Read is always that model.



1 August 2011 21:56

His father Herbert Read, the influential critic and anarchist. Odd that the Wikipedia entry mentions two sons but not John. Are any of his films available to see?

John Wyver

1 August 2011 22:05

Alex, Both Henry Moore (1951) and Barbara Hepworth (1961) are freely available on the BBC Archive site, as are John's other films with Moore. They are really worth watching, especially the '51 Moore film which is THE foundational arts documentary. John was Read's first son, but Herbert left John's mother and had John's half-brothers with a second wife.

Philip Bonham-Carter

3 August 2011 17:34

John, I was very sad to read of John's passing. I shot several films with John 'Summer with the Ruralists' in 1978, celebrating the work of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, 'Work in Progress" 1983 Peter Blake and a film on the life of the Scottish Impressionist painter William McTaggart. He was a delight to work with. He had a purity in the way he approached his artists and his films. His films were truly about the artists and not about himself. We would wait for hours, if not days, for the light to be perfect before shooting. During one of these lengthy periods on Macrihanish Beach - waiting for the Scottish mists to lift - we would attempt many different versions of the Charleston together. He was hugely modest, talented and fun. I shall remember him most fondly.

John Mullen

4 August 2011 23:48

RIP John Read. A true pioneer and, from my very limited contact with him, a lovely and funny individual.

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