Read was born in Dundee Scotland, on 3 February 1723, to Alexander and Elizabeth Read, and one of thirteen children of an affluent Forfarshire family. She may have received her education in Edinburgh. Her mother was the sister of Sir John Wedderburn, a man who’d fought in the Jacobite rising of 1745, and whose daughters were cared for by Read after his execution.
When the war ended at the Battle of Culloden and with family friends fleeing to France, Read’s family was prompted to follow suit for their association and support of the Jacobite cause through her uncle. Through their connections of the gentry, they were given sanctuary in Paris, France that same year and introduced to the painter Robert Strange -whom is speculated to be Read’s teacher and introduction into the French artistic sphere. There she studied other works of art and improved her skills with little hindrance or instruction; it would have been hard for her to have been accepted into an academy class as a woman, let alone a foreigner whose family had a price on their heads for aiding and supporting a cause against the King of England.
This period was not to last, however, as she fled to Rome in 1750 along with a majority of the Jacobites that’d sought refuge in Paris. While there, she became friends with members of the Roman Catholic Church, often commissioned to recreate master paintings in oil or pastel for those in higher positions of the church’s hierarchy. One of these faithful patrons, Cardinal Albani, allowed Read to copy some of his Carriera portraits from his personal collection, which ultimately led the man to sit for her himself.
She remained in Rome until deciding to venture to England in 1753, with the blessing of Albani -who managed to help her keep face regardless of her family’s past alignment in the war. This era was not only filled with a healthy stream of patronage and commissions, as Read was communicating and submitting samples to the Society of Arts for their collection and approval of fixing pastels. However, her methods, when compared to fellow artist Sebastien Jurine’s own, were considered inferior as she used a different type of pastel than he.
In 1764, Read was on the road back to Paris for commissioned portraits of Madame Elisabeth through the Dauphin. Her work was shown by the Free Society (1761-1768) and the Society of Artists (1760-1772) -of which she became an honorary member in 1769 along with the two other female pastel artists Mary Benwell and Mary Black in response to the Royal Academy accepting Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser into their respective fold. Later, after a failed petition to the king, Read left to join the Royal Academy and was expelled from the Society as consequence.
She left England with her niece as her popularity and demand declined as new pastel artists rose into the public’s view and she no longer captivated the beholders of her work. This trip wasn’t to last long though, as her health deteriorated while abroad and Read found herself on a boat back to England in 1778, unfortunately passing while on the voyage.
Read was for some years a fashionable artist in London, working in oils, crayons, and miniature. From 1760 she exhibited almost annually with either the Incorporated Society of Artists, the Free Society of Artist, or the Royal Academy, sending chiefly portraits of ladies and children of the aristocracy, which she painted with much grace and refinement.
Read's talent for portraiture was highly regarded in her day, and was the subject of an epistle by Tobias Smollett:
Let candid Justice our attention lead,
to the soft crayon of the graceful Read.
and praised by William Hayley.
Miss Read resided in St. James's Place, London until 1766, when she removed to Jermyn Street. In 1771 she went to India with her niece, Helena Beatson, a clever young artist, who there married, in 1777, (Sir) Charles Oakeley, bart., governor of Madras. She is reported as being in that country in 1775 and 1777, and as dying at sea near Madras.
Her death is recorded as 15 December 1778.
In 1763 she exhibited a portrait of Queen Charlotte with the infant Prince of Wales, and in 1765 one of the latter with his brother, Prince Frederick.
On resuming her practice, Miss Read settled in Welbeck Street. Many of her portraits were well engraved by Valentine Green and James Watson, and a pair of plates, by J. Finlayson, of the celebrated Gunning sisters, the Duchess of Argyll and the Countess of Coventry, remained popular.
Some works by Read have at one time been attributed to Joshua Reynolds. A portrait of Lady Georgiana Spencer has been noted as one of her finest.