Historian of modern art and art critic. Read was the eldest of three sons born to a Yorkshire, England, farmer. Orphaned early, he was sent to Crossley's School, Halifax. At age 16 he worked as a bank clerk, studying in the evenings for entrance to Leeds University. He entered Leeds in 1912 where he initially studied economics and law. At Leeds he came in contact with the modern art collection of its president, Michael Sadler. After graduation, he served in the army in World War I (1915-1918) with distinction, rising to the rank of captain and engaging in battles in Belgium and France. In 1919 he married Evelyn May Roff (1894–1972), who was also a student of art history. After military service, Read worked in the British civil service as the secretary to the Controller of Establishments. In 1922 he joined the department of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There he wrote books on English stained glass and pottery (one with fellow curator Bernard Rackham). As a museum curator, Read made professional contacts in Germany, becoming close friends with Bonn professor of art history Wilhelm Worringer, and director of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Max Sauerlandt. Read translated Worringer's influential book Formprobleme der Gotik, 1912, into English as Form in Gothic in 1927. Through Sauerlandt and Worringer, he met the Bauhaus artists and architects who helped him form many of his ideas on modern art. Read also published literary criticism in the magazine New Age. In 1931 he left the Victoria and Albert Museum for the Watson Gordon chair of fine arts position at Edinburgh University. During these years as an academician he published some of his most influential texts. In 1931, perhaps his most famous book on art, The Meaning of Art, appeared. It was followed by Art Now: an Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture in 1933 and Art and Industry in 1934. Read left the University in 1933--and his wife--to edit the Burlington Magazine. He married a student from Edinburgh, Margaret Ludwig (1905–1996) in 1936. During these years he lived in Hampstead and came to know many of the artists whom he would champion in later years. These included Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Nicholson's wife, Barbara Hepworth. For the academic year 1935-1936 he was Sydney Jones lecturer in art at the University of Liverpool. In 1937 Read used his position as editor of the Burlington Magazine to lead a protest of the appointment of T. S. R. Boase as second director of the Courtauld Institute, questioning the direction of the institution. Read left the Magazine in 1939, succeeded by A. C. Sewter, when he was chosen to be the first director of a museum of modern art in London. The entry of Britain into the second world war prevented the museum's establishment. During the early war years he was the Leon fellow at the University of London 1940-1942. Read's writing during this time shows clearest his sympathies with socialism and the notion that refined aesthetics could lead to social harmony. His Art and Society appeared in 1937 and Anarchy and Order in 1945. Perhaps most influential book, because of the numerous translations, was his 1943 Education through Art, essentially a manifesto of the anarchism Read embraced. After the war, Read joined the book publishing firm of Routledge and Keegan Paul where he edited a series on "English Master Painters." Together with Roland Penrose, he founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1947. He was knighted in 1953, lecturing as the Charles Eliot Norton Fellow at Harvard University between 1953-1954. An A. W. Mellon lecture at the National Gallery of Art, Washgington, D. C., followed in 1954. Read focused a great deal of his writing in the 1950's and after on Henry Moore, building on an initial volume of 1944 into his Henry Moore: a Study of His Life and Work in 1965. In 1959, the first edition of his Concise History of Modern Painting was published. A lifelong pacifist, perhaps due to his personal war experiences (his brother was killed in World War I), he participated in the Ban the Bomb movement including a sitdown strike in Trafalgar Square. His papers reside at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Read was initially a "Disraeli conservative" (Oxford Biographical Dictionary). His experience reading Nietzsche and Freud lead to a psychoanalytic approach to art and literature, of which his mentor, T. S. Eliot, disapproved. Read adopted strong socialist views politically. He was for example, an early critic of Nazi Germany. He abandoned Soviet communism and adopted an anarchist politics by 1937. Read was an important interpreter of continental art and an exponent of contemporary British art.