Handley-Read – father of Charles Handley-Read, the dedicated enthusiast for Victorian art, architecture and design and knowledgeable scholar about the work of William Burges – was an artist with a varied, lively, engaging style and a life to match.
Born in 1870, Handley-Read had first studied at the Kensington School of Art (then, the National Art Training School, at South Kensington), which was distinguished, in the 1880s, by treating male and female students with a greater degree of equality than many other art schools of the day, concentrating, as it did, on studies of the human form, and allowing women to study the nude, as well as the draped, model. Handley-Read moved from here to the Westminster School of Art, which, from 1877 to 1893, was headed by Fred Brown and, by the late 1880s, was regarded as one of the most progressive art schools in London. Brown’s curriculum was, to a considerable extent, influenced by Alphonse Legros, then at the Slade, and by the Académie Julian, in Paris, where Brown himself had studied in the winter of 1883-4, and where he must have encountered the radical developments in France. He required that young artists should first concentrate on life drawing - but not just conventional, static, poses. Rather, they were to capture their sitters on the move, and thus acquire highly sophisticated skills of observation. Then, students were encouraged to sketch en plein air and to explore and express their individual perceptions and styles. There can be no doubt that Handley-Read’s swift, discerning draughtsmanship and his confident manipulation of colour was shaped by this training.
Handley-Read followed Westminster with the Royal Academy Schools, where he won the Creswick Prize for his landscape painting. In 1895 he became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists - that body which had become ‘Royal’ in 1887, in the Queen’s Jubilee, when it was under the presidency of James McNeill Whistler, who wished to transform the Society into an exciting, modern exhibition venue, with high standards and challenging ideas. Whistler’s ambitions stirred up some resentment - and it was not long before he and his admirers resigned, with the quip, ‘the Artists came out and the British remained’. But, even though his tenure had been brief, the R.B.A. had been altered by Whistler’s involvement and, for some years, continued to be regarded as a place for radical art.
Handley-Read quickly embarked on his career as an illustrator, with early commissions including three illustrations to Walter Wood’s 1912, Grant the Grenadier, His Adventures: A Novel. Full of tales of heroism and derring-do, this lavishly illustrated book was obviously aimed at boys and young men who were hoping to play a role in building and defending the British Empire. The frontispiece itself was a colour lithograph by Handley- Read, entitled, ‘ “Keep it up”, said the Chief, “I shall not forget it” ’ – an exhortation to a young man who, with the Union flag flying behind him, keeps on drumming, through the smoke and chaos of battle. This image, and the others produced by Handley-Read – ‘Grant Captures the Eagle’ and ‘Hurled him into the Dreadful Ditch’ – are fascinating, not only as a reflection of the imperial and militaristic ambitions and fears during this period of intense political confrontation, in Europe and beyond, but also as evidence of Handley-Read’s undoubted brilliance at conveying the vigour and energy of men in battle – their awkward movement, their expressive poses.
It is hard to know whether to describe Handley-Read’s next artistic output as an irony or an inevitability. In the First World War, he served in the Artists’ Rifles. He was a sergeant-instructor in the Machine Gun Corps, producing many illustrations for training purposes. Ultimately, he was made a Captain. His pictures – often swiftly executed, with charcoal and watercolour – included the ‘Battle of the Somme, Tanks in Action’, ‘The Twisted Rails, Ypres-Dickybosen Road’, ‘Loos, September 1915’ and, ‘Killing Germans; the machine at work’. Like the shockingly powerful images of dead and empty landscapes by Paul Nash – also enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles – Handley-Read’s 'Somewhere in France' offers a fallen bough and plume of smoke in an otherwise deserted landscape, as a sign of a war that challenged the imagination by the intensity of its horrors. These fierce pictures provide a rather shocking contrast to his earlier illustrations: Handley-Read – in common with other artists and writers of the period – now had a more sombre view of the impact of militarism. Some of his pictures, capturing this War so powerfully and swiftly, were exhibited in May 1916, 1917 and 1918, at The Leicester Galleries, in London. These were part of a long series of exhibitions held throughout the War and Handley-Read kept good company: preceding and following his shows in these years were works by William Rothenstein, Henri Harpignies, Lady Butler, Gaudier Brzeska and Eric Kennington.
After the First War, Handley-Read never again turned to the heroic - at least, not on the battlefield. He had married, before the War, and his wife was one of the first women to qualify as a medical doctor, as well as being an active suffragette. In 1916, their son, Charles, was born. He was sent to school at Bryanston - only established in 1928, with a handful of pupils and a focus on sponsoring a free-spirited, artistic approach to life. Indeed, Charles even returned to Bryanston as a ‘charismatic … knowing and stylish’ art teacher, with a love of the work of Paul Klee, Picasso and Wyndham Lewis. Clearly, this was a family which fostered a bold, dynamic, intellectually demanding approach to life.
Edward Handley-Read seems to have revelled in this busy, enquiring, experimental environment. Amongst his portraits, there is a vivid image of his son, aged about three – now in the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford – ‘Bull’s Eyes’. This small picture is one of the most fresh and engaging portraits of a child that we have seen: a portrait revealing both the vulnerability and the optimism of extreme youth, expressed with the energy of an artist loving his post-War life and his family.
By the 1920s, Edward Handley-Read’s artistic output was very varied. He painted the green English countryside bathed in its soft light; the beaches and the sea; colourful parades and celebrations in town; elegant women and nudes. He was also called on to paint portraits of military men and local civic celebrities; even these are witness to Handley-Read’s mastery of bold composition, lively colour and ability to convey a strong sense of an individual life. His training – his artistic schooling and the more bitter training offered by war, as well as the warm family existence he seems to have enjoyed after the Great War – equipped him with a penetrating eye and brain, and enabled him to capture a busy scene or a single individual with vivacity and humanity.
This is an artist whose work is worth searching out. Edward Handley-Read deserves a considerably greater profile.
© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013
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