Leon Underwood in his Hammersmith studio, ca 1930
|Born||25 December 1890
|Died||9 October 1975|
|Education||Regent Street Polytechnic
Royal College of Art
Slade School of Fine Art
|Known for||Sculpture, Wood engraving|
Leon Underwood (born 25 December 1890 in Shepherds Bush, London, died 9 October 1975) "The precursor of modern sculpture in Britain" was a noted British sculptor, painter, draughtsman and engraver as well as a writer and illustrator, scholar, teacher, philosopher and stained glass and furniture craftsman. He attended the Slade School of Art and founded the magazine The Island in 1931. His work was influenced by African and Cycladic designs.
In the First World War, Underwood worked with Solomon Joseph Solomon as a camoufleur, creating observation posts camouflaged as trees. He sketched and painted examples of his wartime work, as in his oil painting Erecting a Camouflage Tree (1919). In 1920 he received the British Prix de Rome but chose not to go to Italy, instead opening his own drawing school, then traveling elsewhere through most of the decade.
Underwood is best known for his sculptures cast in bronze, carvings in marble, stone and wood and his drawings. His lifetime´s work however includes a wide range of mediums and activities, and an expressive and technical mastery in what was at the time a ground breaking approach. His paintings included portraits and Mexican landscapes resulting from his youthful travels there. He was a friend of Ralph Chubb with whom he sometimes collaborated and exhibited.
He wrote a number of books on ancient African sculpture, including a study of the Ife and Benin heads, Bronzes of West Africa which show his pioneering appreciation of their artistic significance and his understanding of their relationship to the culture and technology from which they originated. His access to the cave paintings of Altamira in Spain ignited his "New Philosophy" with regard to this interelationship of the expressiveness and technology of primitive art.
Students and teaching
Among his students was Henry Moore, who later spoke of his indebtedness to Underwood's teaching. Underwood however was always convinced that subject matter formed a fundamental role behind the power of both his own and primitive art, and had no belief in subject-less or purely abstract form in his own work. Other notable students, only a little younger than Underwood, include Gertrude Hermes and Blair Hughes-Stanton.
Underwood set up the Brook Green School, Hammersmith, London in the studio where he personally cast his bronzes, sculpted his carvings and propagated his ideas about primitive sculpture as "...forms created by inspired belief...". The art historian John Rothenstein wrote of him in an introduction to a retrospective exhibition of his bronzes at The Minories, Colchester in 1969 "...the most versatile artist at work in Britain today..." but added a quotation of the artist: "The ravens fed me".
Museums and public collections
Public collections holding works by Leon Underwood include
- the Courtauld Institute of Art, London (39 works)
- the Tate Gallery, London (8 works)
- the National Portrait Gallery, London (4 works)
- the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
- the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
- the National Museum Cardiff (2 works)
- the British Council Collection, London (5 works)
- Lincolnshire County Council's Art Collection
- Hammersmith and Fulham Archives  (15 works)
- The Victor Batte-Lay Trust Collection at The Minories  (2 works)
- The Brooklyn Museum  (3 works)
Underwood was married to Mary Coleman. They had two sons, Garth (a zoologist) and John, and one daughter, Jean.
- Neve & Rothenstein, 1974, pages 1-5
- Jeffery, Celina (May 2000). "The Leon Underwood Collection of African Art". Journal of Museum Ethnography 12: 21–38.
- Newark, 2007. p 60-61.
- Tate: Leon Underwood
- Underwood, Leon (1949). Bronzes of West Africa, Alec Tiranti.
- "Leon Underwood". British Council: Visual Arts. 2011. Retrieved 31 December 2012.
- Rothenstein, 1969, page not cited
- Courtauld: Leon Underwood
- National Portrait Gallery: Leon Underwood
- V&A: Painting and Drawing in the Archive of Art & Design. Leon Underwood AAD/1981/4
- Ashmolean: Leon Underwood, WA1996.382
- National Museum Wales: Leon Underwood
- British Council: Leon Underwood
- Lincolnshire: The Collection: Leon Underwood LCNUG: 1927/149
- Garth Underwood
- Whitworth, Ben (2000). The Sculpture of Leon Underwood. Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries. ISBN 0-85331-774-7.
- Neve, Christopher; Rothenstein, John (1974). "Introduction". Leon Underwood. London: Thames & Hudson. pp. 1–5. ISBN 0500090998.
- Newark, Tim (2007). Camouflage. Thames and Hudson / Imperial War Museum.
- Rothenstein, John (1969). Leon Underwood a retrospective exhibition. Colchester: The Minories.