I watched with great pleasure the programme about Henry Moore the other evening and was delighted to see John Read. In the 70's he made a wonderful film about the Brotherhood of Ruralists, of which I was one. During the shooting of the film in Cornwall, he showed us 2 films he'd made about Stanley Spencer, which I've never forgotten, and wondered if there is anyway of tracking these films down in the BBC archive. I agree with all the things you say about John Read, a really lovely man, who cared enormously about art and how it should be made accessible to a wider public through the medium of televsion.
I'm going to have coffee this morning with the filmmaker John Read, who I haven't seen in a long while. Now I know I don't usually detail my social engagements here, but this is special -- and it's my reason for devoting this (and tomorrow's) post to Read and his work. The son of the influential critic Herbert Read, John directed British television's first documentary film about a living artist, Henry Moore (see the framegrab above), 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.
John Read interviewed in The Art of Arts TV, BBC, 2008
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.
@ David Inshaw Thanks so much for your comment. I know well both the Brotherhood of Ruralists film and the two documentaries that John made with Spencer in 1956 -- these are particularly astonishing records, with Spencer trundling his easel around Cookham in an old pram. At present, I don't think there's any way to see these films, but I'm trying to push the BBC into releasing more of his work - it's great that the six films with Moore are now freely available at the website Henry Moore at the BBC. If I learn any more about the other films, I will be sure to let you know.
All power to your elbow in your attempts to wrest more of Read's exemplary work for the BBC back into the public domain! Would that some of our current crop of directors and presenters of films about artists could watch and learn how Read let the artists and their work speak so powerfully for themselves (Read never resorted to those intensely irritating, jerky, grainy, 'home-movie' style intrusions that continue to spoil too many of today's offerings, for example). I consider myself so fortunate to have seen a good many of Read's inspirational films as they were broadcast at one time or another. How I would dearly love to see all of them again including one of his very last offerings: an exquisite miniature made in 1982 (for the 'Omnibus' series?) celebrating the life and marvellous watercolours of John Sell Cotman on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the artist's birth. The late and much missed Russell Harty was the narrator if memory serves me correctly. Quiet and uplifting.
I've just read John Wyver's comments about John Read, for whom I worked for five years and was privileged to be with him on David Inshaw's programme "Summer with the Brotherhood",; a documentary on DAVID GENTLEMAN, NORMAN FOSTER, and the wonderful tribute to HENRY MOORE at 80 which was a marvellous experience. I too think it's high time JOHN READ was given the recognition he so richly deserves. He has great integrity, is a fine film maker and with each subject was never difficult, always knowledgeable but always modest and made some fascinating and original films. We also worked with the late Australian artist ARTHUR BOYD in a co-production with ABC and John seemed equally at home in the outback of Australia as he was in England.
Does anyone know the date and title of an art documentary film made by John Read's son about L. S. Lowry? There is a copy in the Salford Lowry Archives but everyone is on holiday!
It was John Read's BBC film about Lowry which led my father to make contact with Lowry, the atart of a long friendship. I met John Read at a dinner party a few years ago but only realised who he was afterwards. Strange world!
IMDb.com don't appear to have any of John Read's work listed though they appear to be confusing him with the producer and cinematographer associated with Gerry Anderson's puppet productions, at least as far as trivia is concerned, and possibly as regards his date of birth. The same details can be found on a Wikipedia page. Can you confirm that *this* John Read was born 7 June 1923, Purley, Surrey? I assume the trivia on IMDb and a little more on Wikipedia must relate to him: "Read initially worked at the BBC as a producer for the Talks Department and a screenwriter for the Film Department. He directed the 1962 BBC documentary An Act of Faith, narrated by Leo Genn, on the destruction and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral." I'd be most grateful for any help.