Leon Underwood

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Leon Underwood
Leon Underwood 1890-1975.jpg
Underwood in his Hammersmith studio, ca 1930
George Claude Leon Underwood

25 December 1890
Died9 October 1975(1975-10-09) (aged 84)
Known forSculpture, Wood-engraving
Spouse(s)Mary Coleman (m.1917)

George Claude Leon Underwood (25 December 1890 – 9 October 1975) was a British artist, although primarily known as a sculptor, printmaker and painter, he was also an influential teacher and promotor of African art.[1][2] His travels in Mexico and West Africa had a substantial influence on his art, particularly on the representation of the human figure in his sculptures and paintings.[3] Underwood is best known for his sculptures cast in bronze, carvings in marble, stone and wood and his drawings. His lifetime's work includes a wide range of media and activities, with an expressive and technical mastery. Underwood did not hold modernism and abstraction in art in high regard and this led to critics often ignoring his work until the 1960s when he came to be viewed as an important figure in the development of modern sculpture in Britain.[4]


Early life[edit]

Underwood was born in the west London suburb of Shepherds Bush. He was the eldest of the three sons of George Underwood, a fine art dealer and he attended Hampden Gurney School.[5][6] From 1907 to 1910 he attended the Regent Street Polytechnic in central London before studying at the Royal College of Art for three years.[7] While still a student in 1911, Underwood was commissioned to paint a mural for the Peace Palace in The Hague.[8] In 1913 he visited Russia to study the depiction of horses in traditional Russian art.[9]

World War One[edit]

Erecting a Camouflage Tree (1919)

In the First World War, Underwood enlisted in the Royal Horse Artillery before transferring to a field battery unit and then serving as a Captain in the Camouflage Section of the Royal Engineers.[7][5] He worked with Solomon Joseph Solomon as a camoufleur, creating battlefield observation posts disguised as trees.[9][10] Underwood's duties on the Western Front included going into No man's land to make detailed drawings of trees which were later replaced with metal replicas used by military observers.[11] He sketched and painted scenes of this work, notably in his 1919 oil painting Erecting a Camouflage Tree, which was intended for the, never built, British national Hall of Remembrance and was in turn purchased by the Imperial War Museum.[10][12]

1920s and 1930s[edit]

After the war Underwood attended the Slade School of Art for a year's refresher course and in 1920 received the British Prix de Rome but chose not to go to Italy, instead using the grant to travel elsewhere later in the decade.[7] In his Hammersmith studio he set up a private art school, the Brook Green School, which he ran, intermittently, until 1938.[4] At Brook Green, Underwood initially, concentrated on teaching printmaking with woodcutting but also began making sculptures.[7][13] In 1925, with some of his past pupils, Underwood created the English Wood-Engraving Society to promote the art form.[13] Later in his career, between 1935 and 1945 Underwood created a significant number of colour linocuts.[13]

In 1922 Underwood had his first solo exhibition at the Chenil Gallery in London.[7] An exhibition of his sculptures was held in 1924.[5] He also taught a life drawing class at the Royal College of Art from 1920 until 1923 when he resigned and travelled to Paris and Iceland.[7] In 1925 he became the first contemporary artist to spend time examining the cave paintings at Altamira in Spain.[14] Underwood spent 1926 in the United States where he published an illustrated book of verse, Animalia, illustrated some volumes by others and also painted and made engravings.[3][15] In Greenwich Village he opened a life-drawing school.[16] In 1927 he went to Mexico, spending five months travelling and studying Aztec and Mayan art forms.[3][13]

After returning to England in late 1928 Underwood made a number of paintings on Mexican themes and also created several surrealist paintings, six of which were shown at the first, and only, exhibition of The Neo Society held at the Godfrey Phillips Gallery in London in May 1930.[17] Underwood co-founded a graphical quarterly magazine, The Island, in 1931 which, despite contributions from Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, CRW Nevinson and Mahatma Gandhi, was only published for four issues.[3][7][9][13][14] In 1934 he published an artistic manifesto, Art for Heaven's Sake: Notes on a Philosophy of Art.[18] Underwood 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.

In 1938, Underwood closed the Brook Green School.[4] During the School's existence, its students had included Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Gertrude Hermes, Blair Hughes-Stanton, Raymond Coxon and Roland Vivian Pitchforth.[9][17][19] Moore later spoke of his indebtedness to Underwood's teaching.[1][9]

World War Two[edit]

From 1939 to 1942, during World War Two, Underwood worked at the civil defence camouflage centre at Leamington Spa.[7][5] In 1944, having long collected and studied non-Western art, he undertook a lecture tour, sponsored by the British Council, of west Africa and on his return to Britain wrote three books on aspects of African art.[3][9][19][18] These included a study of the Ife and Benin heads, Bronzes of West Africa which showed a pioneering appreciation of their artistic significance and his understanding of their relationship to the culture and technology from which they originated.[9] Underwood had begun collecting African art in 1919 and, after his 1944 tour, had acquired over 550 pieces including several significant works by Yoruba artists, including sculptures by Olowe of Ise.[9] Some of these works Underwood later sold to the British Museum while others were eventually acquired by National Museum of African Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the United States.[9][13] His access to the cave paintings of Altamira in Spain ignited his "New Philosophy" with regard to this interrelationship of the expressiveness and technology of primitive art.[1]

Later life[edit]

Throughout the 1950s, Underwood concentrated on his sculpture and on promoting his theories and philosophy of art.[7] In 1961 Underwood was elected an Honorary Member of the Royal Society of Sculptors and further recognition followed in 1969 when the first full-scale retrospective of his work was held at The Minories in Colchester.[3][7] The art historian John Rothenstein wrote in the introduction to that exhibition that Underwood was "..the most versatile artist at work in Britain today..".[20] However it was to be over forty years before the next major retrospective of his work was held, in 2015 at the Pallant House Gallery.[14][9] This lack of attention has been attributed to the range and versatility of Underwood's output which, across the various media he worked in, lacked a common recognisable style that was easy to promote and also to his, sometimes, complex and esoteric philosophies and theories on art.[21]

Underwood was married to Mary Coleman. They first met in 1911 at the Royal College of Art, married in 1917 and their first child was born in 1919.[22] They had two sons, Garth (a zoologist)[23] and John, and one daughter, Jean.

Public commissions[edit]

  • Tempera mural for Shell canteen London, 1954[5]
  • Relief panel for Commercial Development Building Old Street, London, 1955[5]
  • Reredos, side chapel and stained glass window, St Michael and All Angels, New Marston, Oxford, 1955[3]
  • Bronze candlesticks and crucifix Ampleforth Abbey, 1958.[5]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Animalia. Payson and Clarke, 1926.[15]
  • The Siamese Cat. Brentano's, 1928.
  • The Red Tiger, 1929, by Phillip Russell, illustrated by Underwood, an account of their joint travels in Mexico.[8][13]
  • Art for Heaven's Sake: Notes on a Philosophy of Art, 1934[18]
  • Figures in Wood of West Africa. Alec Tiranti, 1947.
  • Masks of West Africa. Alec Tiranti, 1948.
  • Bronzes of West Africa. Alec Tiranti, 1949.[9]
  • Bronze Age Technology in Western Asia and Northern Europe, 1958.[3]

Museums and public collections[edit]

Bronze model

Public collections holding works by Underwood include



  1. ^ a b c Neve, Christopher; Rothenstein, John (1974). "Introduction". Leon Underwood. London: Thames & Hudson. pp. 1–5. ISBN 0500090998.
  2. ^ Celina Jeffery (May 2000). "The Leon Underwood Collection of African Art". Journal of Museum Ethnography. 12 (12): 21–38. JSTOR 40793641.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Frances Spalding (1990). 20th Century Painters and Sculptors. Antique Collectors' Club. ISBN 1 85149 106 6.
  4. ^ a b c Ian Chilvers (2004). The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0 19 860476 9.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g University of Glasgow History of Art / HATII (2011). "Leon Underwood". Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain & Ireland 1851–1951. Retrieved 9 August 2020.
  6. ^ a b "Archive of Art & Design – Leon Underwood". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j David Buckman (2006). Artists in Britain Since 1945 Vol 2, M to Z. Art Dictionaries Ltd. ISBN 0 953260 95 X.
  8. ^ a b "Leon Underwood 9 July – 8 August 2013 at Redfern Gallery, London". Wall Street International Magazine. 19 July 2013. Retrieved 10 August 2020.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Leif Birger Holmstedt (13 January 2019). "Leon Underwood Sculptor, Scholar and Collector". ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA. Retrieved 9 August 2020.
  10. ^ a b Tim Newark (2007). Camouflage. Thames and Hudson / Imperial War Museum.
  11. ^ Paul Gough (2010). A Terrible Beauty: British Artists in the First World War. Sansom and Company. ISBN 978-1-906593-00-1.
  12. ^ "Erecting a Camouflage Tree". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g "Leon Underwood". The British Museum. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  14. ^ a b c Mark Sheerin (27 April 2015). "Leon Underwood steps out of historical shadows with major show at Pallant House". culture 24. Retrieved 12 August 2020.
  15. ^ a b c "Person: Leon Underwood". National Portrait Gallery. 26 December 2016. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
  16. ^ Celina Jeffery (2002). "The Ember (Italian Immigrant)". Tate. Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  17. ^ a b "Catelogue entry: Casement to Infinity (1930)". Tate. Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  18. ^ a b c Celina Jeffery (2002). "Manitu Bird (1935)". Tate. Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  19. ^ a b c "Leon Underwood (1890–1975)". British Council. 2011. Archived from the original on 3 February 2014. Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  20. ^ John Rothenstein (1969). Leon Underwood a retrospective exhibition. Colchester: The Minories.
  21. ^ Simon Martin (2015). "Figure and Rhythm: Reassessing Leon Underwood". Port. Retrieved 12 August 2020.
  22. ^ "Catalogue entry: The Fireside (1919)". Tate. Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  23. ^ "Garth Underwood – Dedication | Bulletin of the Natural History Museum: Zoology Series | Cambridge Core". Journals.cambridge.org. 9 December 2002. doi:10.1017/S0968047002000183. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
  24. ^ "A&A Search : Leon Underwood". Artandarchitecture.org.uk. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
  25. ^ Celina Jeffery (2002). "Totem to the Artist (1925–30)". Tate. Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  26. ^ "search results". ingramcollection.com. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  27. ^ "All Online Collections". Ashmolean.org. Archived from the original on 18 May 2007. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
  28. ^ "UNDERWOOD, Leon | Art Collections Online". Museumwales.ac.uk. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
  29. ^ "Brook Green Artists, 1890–1940 | LBHF Libraries". Lbhflibraries.wordpress.com. 1 July 2013. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
  30. ^ "Leon Underwood". The Victor Battle-Ley Trust Collection. Archived from the original on 26 July 2014. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
  31. ^ "Collections: Leon Underwood". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  32. ^ "Leon Underwood works". Search.woindowsonwarwickshire.org.uk. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
  33. ^ Simon Martin. "First Look: Leon Underwood at Pallant House Gallery". Apollo. Retrieved 12 August 2020.

External links[edit]