John Reed was born in Evandale, Tasmania, and attended schools in England before returning to Australia and Geelong Grammar because of World War I. After graduating from Geelong Grammar in 1920, he studied law at Cambridge University (1920-1924) and completed a degree in arts and law at the University of Melbourne in 1925. In 1926 Reed joined a Melbourne law firm and was made partner in 1933, but he resigned two years later to establish his own firm for which he worked until 1943.
In 1930 Reed met Sunday Ballieu in 1930 and the couple were married two years later, creating one of the most significant partnerships in Australian art and literature. In 1934 they bought a 6-hectare dairy farm at Heidelberg which they named 'Heide', using it as their home and as a retreat for artists and writers such as Cynthia Reed, Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester, Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd. In 1967, work was completed on another, larger house called Heide II.
From this base, Reed helped to found the Contemporary Arts Society, providing him with a significant influence over the production and exhibition of modern art in Australia. While Reed's involvement in the art world attracted many critics, he would remain a significant presence for forty years through the support of several Victorian galleries with his own formidable collection.
Reed's involvement with literature came through his partnership with Max Harris on the production of Angry Penguins, published by the firm Reed & Harris from 1943. In addition to the magazine, they published the works of a number of writers, including Dal Stivens, Max Harris and Alister Kershaw. After the Ern Malley hoax and other charges of obscenity, the professional relationship between Reed and Harris ended, but they joined forces again in 1953 on the short-lived Ern Malley's Journal with Barrett Reid.
In later life, Reed continued his prodigious habit of writing letters to the editor and, encouraged by Geoffrey Dutton, he began work on a projected biography to be called 'Artobiography'. But, suffering from cancer, Reed was unable to complete this project. John Reed died in December 1981, and, according to his wishes, 'Heide' was sold to the Victorian government to display his collection of modern art. It is now known as the Heide Museum of Modern Art.