Charles Hercules Read

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Sir Charles Hercules Read, July 6, 1857-February 11, 1929. By H. Balfour, M.A., F.R.S.

The news of the death of Sir Charles Hercules Read on the 11th February at Rapallo was, perhaps, not entirely unexpected by those who realised how his health had been steadily deteriorating ever since his retirement from active service. But the end came rather suddenly, and the shock conveyed by this news must have been very widely felt, not only by his many personal friends, but also among the even wider ranks of his admirers, who could not but realise that the study of the past had received a severe blow by the removal of one of its most brilliant followers. Read was in many ways fortunate. Not only was he a man of handsome and even striking appearance and highly gifted intellectually, but fate ordained that he should be able to pursue a career for which he was singularly adapted, and which gave full scope for the exercise of his special abilities. His interests and tastes covered a very wide field, and within his sphere of activity he was recognised as a high authority, and as one whose opinion was bound to carry weight. He was born on 6th July, 1857. Apparently he did not follow the usual educational course at a public school and one of the Universities, but received a private education which must have been a very sound one. The year 1880 was one of the chief date-marks in his life, since in that year not only was he married to a daughter of Mr. F. G. Smith of Gloucester, but he also became a member of the staff of the British Museum on his appointment as one of the Assistants in the Department of Antiquities. Here he worked under the direction and influence of Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, whose stimulating example, enthusiasm and wide knowledge were powerful factors in developing the potentialities and in shaping the destiny of his very capable young assistant. Read’s active and receptive mind readily responded to this influence, and the knowledge which he acquired was of the widest. He rapidly developed into an expert in many branches, and soon became a recognised authority as an archaeologist, antiquary, orientalist, and ethnologist. His chief interests were centred upon the artistic achievements of the various cultures which he studied, and in matters of Art he was a true connoisseur. His position at the British Museum called for a wide range of knowledge and tended to develop catholic tastes. In 1896 Read succeeded his sponsor, Sir Wollaston Franks, as Keeper of the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography, a position which he held (though the name of the Department was altered) until 1921, when he retired from the post which he had occupied so successfully. In 1912 his services were rewarded with a Knighthood. His abilities received wide recognition and he was elected President of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1899 and again in 1917. He was President of the Society of Antiquaries of London from 1908-1914 and 1919-24, and he presided over the anthropological section of the British Association in 1899. In 1913 he was elected Fellow of the British Academy, and during his career was variously honoured by many societies both at home and abroad. His advice was constantly sought by collectors of the highest rank, such as the Rosenheims, Pierpoint Morgan and others, whose appreciation of the help which he gave to them was frequently expressed in tangible form, to the great benefit of the British Museum Collections.

Like many others who are engaged in the exacting administrative work in important Museums, Read’s output of published works was unfortunately small, and in no way representative of his extensive knowledge. An ethnological paper “On the Origin and Sacred Character of certain Ornaments of the South-east Pacific,” published in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute in 1891, is of interest not only intrinsically but also because the results arrived at corresponded very closely with those reached quite independently by Dr. Hjalmar Stolpe, a Swedish ethnologist (whose important papers have recently been republished in English). In conjunction with O. M. Dalton, Read published an important volume upon the antiquities of Benin in 1899. He contributed papers to Archaeologia and other scientific journals, and every one will regret that he was prevented from enriching the literature still further, and that so much of the knowledge which he had acquired will remain unrecorded. The effect of his influence at the British Museum will persist however. The complimentary volume which was presented to him at a special dinner given in his honour after he retired in 1921, is symbolic testimony to his successful administration and versatility, since it took the form of a record of some of the principal accessions to his department during his tenure of the Keepership. The very varied nature of these accessions bears witness to the range and elasticity of his interests, while their quality testifies to the ability and discernment which he displayed in attracting to the Museum objects both of beauty and of high scientific importance. In these days of increasing tendency to specialise in science, the men whose interests are wide-ranging and whose effective grasp covers a plurality of subjects are becoming steadily scarcer. The conspicuous gap in the ranks of these created by the death of Hercules Read, will keep us reminded of the place which he so ably filled.    


This obituary first appeared as: Balfour, Henry. 1929. ‘Sir Charles Hercules Read, July 6, 1857-February 11, 1929’. Man Vol. 29, pp. 61-62. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

BALFOUR, HENRY. 1929. ‘Sir Charles Hercules Read, July 6, 1857-February 11, 1929’. Man Vol. 29, pp. 61-62. (available on-line: