Born in Willingdon, Sussex on 29th May 1898 Alfred Burgess Read, or A.B as he was known to his friends, attended Eastbourne Grammar School before attending Eastbourne College of Art. His education was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served as a Second Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards and where he made the acquaintance of John Gloag. Described as ‘an exquisite draughtsman’ who ‘drew buildings with a Ruskinian delicacy’, Read illustrated a number of Gloag’s books, including The House We Ought to Live In (1923).
From 1920 he studied metalwork with Harold Stabler RDI at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and on completion of his diploma in 1923 he travelled to Italy thanks to the award of a Rural Industries Bureau Travelling Scholarship. His interest in Walter Gropius HonRDI led Read to visit the Bauhaus where he saw experiments in the design of light fittings. This led to him working for a year for the French lighting company of Bagues in Paris. He then took up the directorship of Troughton & Young (Lighting) Ltd in 1925, where Ernest Race RDI worked under him for a year. Read redesigned the company’s London offices so that he could incorporate an orderly storage system for the technical drawings. Troughton & Young electric light fittings designed by Read (1929) were installed at Yaffle Hill, the home designed by Edward Maufe for Cyril Carter of Poole Pottery.
Although over age at the beginning of The Second World War, Read served in the RAFVR, as a Squadron Leader ground staff, in Africa and in Italy, and was twice mentioned in dispatches. Read contracted a serious lung condition from which he never fully recovered and in 1956 he had to be treated for tuberculosis.
Appointed a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1940 he visited Sweden with a small group of RDIs in 1948. Their trip included a visit to the Orrefors glassworks where Sir Gordon Russell, as Master of the Faculty, took the opportunity to present Edward Hald with the RDI diploma awarded to him in 1939. The outbreak of the Second World War, and then illness, had prevented Hald coming to London for the presentation. On 4th May 1950 Read, as RDI Master, opened the memorial exhibition, designed ‘in a vigorous, fresh and colourful way by Ashley Havinden RDI, for Percy Delf Smith RDI, scribe and letterer, who had recently died’. This past RDI Master, and friend, had been one of Read’s companions on the Faculty’s visit to Sweden. Reflecting on design, in his oration ‘Larger than Life’, as it was in 1961, and what it could be in the years ahead, Read felt that ‘designing is a modest, decent way of contributing to the happiness of the world’. In his vote of thanks, as a member of the RSA Council, John Gloag said of his oldest friend that in their younger days they had ‘decided how the world could be replanned in terms of better design’. Gloag added that Read had made an enormous contribution as ‘a personal industrial designer, as a personal executant craftsman …there are few industrial designers of the calibre of A.B. Read who are capable of handling materials without attempting “to make modern materials imitate their originals”’.
A Fellow of the RSA from 1949 Read was actively involved with the RSA’s design interests. He served for twenty years as a member on the RSA’s Industrial Art Bursaries Board (1948-1968), the Papers and Medals Committee (1940-50) and represented the RSA on the National Advisory Council on Art Education. His reviews for the RSA Journal, included the Report of the Departmental Committee of Industrial Design (1962), the first issue of Design Education (1966) and the 1970 Coldstream report on the structure of art and design education in the further education sector which, Read said, ‘it must be hoped…will benefit the student, the colleges and schools of art and design, and the community as a whole’. He reported for the RSA Journal on the new American Embassy in Grosvenor Square that he, and a small group of RDIs, had seen at the invitation of the USA Ambassador on 13 December 1961. During a rare visit to London in 1957 Alvar Aalto RDI was the guest of honour at a dinner arranged by the Faculty and attended by Read.
The electric light fittings for the 1935 British Art in Industry exhibition and Britain Can Make It (1946) were Read’s work. He designed the central chandelier and all other lighting for the Royal Pavilion at the Festival of Britain (1951). In recognition of the work of the RDIs in the design and furnishing of this pavilion Read, as current Master, was presented to HM the King and Queen. Read wrote a number of articles on lighting design including Lighting in the Home (1938).
In the early 1950s Read was appointed Head of the Design Unit to serve both the pottery and tile works at Carter, Stabler & Adams (later renamed Poole Pottery). While studying at the RCA, and following a visit to the factory, Read sent them some kitchen tile designs (1923) which later went into production. Unhampered by the conventional attitudes prevalent in the ceramic industry, and with co-operation between artists, designers and technicians Read was able to introduce new styles of decoration that expressed the spirit of the time. He developed a range of free-form shapes providing more abstract opportunities for the team of painters and designers, including his daughter Ann Read, who joined the pottery in 1952. Read designed a number of pieces for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953). His designs for Carter tiles included an industrial scene tile mural for Shellhaven in Essex and another food related mural for the cafeteria at Lewis’s store in Liverpool. Before he retired from Poole Pottery in 1957 Read had commissioned his friend and fellow RDI, Gordon Cullen, to design a large tile mural that would illustrate the history and spirit of Coventry (1958).
Fiona MacCarthy described Read as the ‘epitome of courtesy, integrity and DIA right- thinking’. His old friend Sir Gordon Russell wrote that he was ‘cheerful, friendly and always willing to lend a hand…a great number of people have reason to value his kindness…He had a considerable practical knowledge of architecture and an interest in archaeology and craftsmanship of many kinds’.
Alfred Burgess Read died on the 10th October 1973 at the age of 74.
Britain Can Make It Exhibition Catalogue 1946
- Group GG: Domestic Equipment – items 118, 119, 120, 121, 122, 123
- Group RR: Furnished Rooms – items 52, 125, 126, 152, 153, 330, 331, 357, 358, 359, 360, 378, 379, 410, 440, 441, 471, 590, 663,665
- Bedroom in a detached town house – p130
- Entrance to ladies’ lavatory – p145
- Rest space opposite dining room – p146
- Rest space opposite Information Kiosk – p146
Original image reference: GB-1837-DES-DCA-30-1-POR-R-12-1. Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.