Read, Herbert Edward


Published in DA Transactions, 1951.

Herbert Edward Read, F.S.A., died on 3rd November, 1950. His craftsmanship in the restoration of ancient church screens, pulpits and pews, and in the execution of modern carvings, was well known throughout the West Country, and indeed all over England. It was immensely fortunate that he was available during and after the second World War to cope with one of the worst effects of enemy action at Exeter. The following tribute (in the Times) is from the Very Revd. Dr. S. C. Carpenter:—

The death of Herbert Read of Exeter has deprived the Church of England of a great artist. He has long been known, not only in the south-west but also in many other parts of England, as a skilled and faithful restorer of old wood-work, and a designer of much that is new and beautiful. One of the most elaborate of his creations is the chancel screen in Mullion Church.

His greatest work was done in the years that followed the air raid on Exeter Cathedral in 1942. On the morning of May 4, 1942, the quire was filled with heaps of broken screens, chairs, hymn-books, kneelers, and much else. Read spent weeks in the quire sorting out the treasures from the rubbish. He collected and stored thousands of fragments of the fourteenth- century screens. The King, when he saw the chaos, said, “The biggest jig-saw puzzle in the world”. Many declared, “You will never do it”, but Read was not daunted. He had known and loved the cathedral all his life. Much of the modern work in it was his.

In about seven years he put together all the fragments, all fastened with oak pins, with not one nail or screw. One screen was in 1,000 pieces, another 2,000, a third many more. The screen next to the place where the bomb fell had been reduced to dust. He made another, exactly like the old one. He also restored the sedilia, mending the fabric in some 800 places. There was no one else in England who could have done it.

He was a man of simple and intensely Christian character, a devoted Churchman, who venerated the medieval craftsmen and asked for nothing better than to be allowed to carry on their work. It is much to be wished that some of his many remembrances of old-time Devon clergy and village committees for the erection of war memorials could be collected and given to the world.