Leon Underwood, 1890-1975

Leon Underwood is one of those artists whose work is quite difficult to categorise - for no other reason than that he was so versatile, prolific and adventurous. He must be regarded as amongst the heroic figures of mid-20th century British art.

One of the distinguishing aspects of his work is its very multiplicity - he was a noted sculptor, painter, draughtsman, etcher, engraver, writer, teacher and collector. He also produced designs for stained glass and furniture. It is, perhaps, this very catholic approach to his work which has meant that he is never fully to the fore of one’s mind, when thinking of a particular discipline (except, perhaps, for sculpture, to which he devoted so much of his later career), though his dedication and technical mastery of whatever he turned to is very striking.

Underwood was born to a family of antiquaries. His father ran an antiques and printing shop in Paddington and Underwood himself began to work in this shop when he left school. This familiarity with a wide range of works of art and craft, which displayed a great variety of techniques and outcomes, is likely to have appealed to the young Underwood and may go some way to explaining his enthusiasm for, and expertise in, so many mediums.

It was an encounter with William Blake’s marvellous Glad Day which is said to have moved Underwood to become an artist. He began to study in 1907 and won a Scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1910. It was in that same year that Roger Fry organised his ‘Manet and the Post Impressionists’ exhibition, held at the Grafton Galleries, from November, 1910 - January, 1911. Rarely can one exhibition, on show for two months, have exerted such an influence on the development of British art. In London, for the first time, the wider public could see a gathering of work by, amongst others, Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Derain, Seurat and Rouault. This display of paintings, showing brilliant colour, assertive mark-making and vigorous form, impressed Underwood. What seems to have appealed to him most of all, was the directness which could be obtained when drawing on the spot, in the open air. And, in the years before the outbreak of war, he travelled widely, from the Lake District to Germany, Poland and even Russia, sketching and painting and experimenting with colour and technique.

Underwood fought in WWI. He also worked in the Camouflage Section, with artists such as C.R.W. Nevinson, painting the brilliant, disruptive patterns, with bold lines and contrasting planes of colour, which proved so effective at hiding machinery and positions, in the field and from the air.

'While his fellow camouflage designers worked safely in workshops and painting sheds many miles behind the lines, the young painter Leon Underwood was sent on hazardous forays into No Man’s Land. With his back to the enemy he was required to make detailed drawings of trees on the British trench line. These drawings were then used to construct an exact replica of a chosen tree which, hollowed out and lined with bullet-deflecting metal, was installed after dark as a cunningly designed observation post'[1].

Reflecting his experiences, in 1919, Underwood painted one of his most powerful early works, Erecting a Camouflage Tree, now held in the Imperial War Museum. But this was not all: by this time, he had already produced paintings, drawings, sculpted a Dove, designed a trench mortar, written a ballet, married, had a family, and exhibited at the New English Art Club. What’s more, in 1919, he enrolled at the Slade, in order to refine his draughtsmanship, and studied under the redoubtable Henry Tonks, who was so influential in directing several generations of British artists to draw with facility, swiftness and expressiveness.

In 1919, Underwood was also a founder member of what proved to be a durable group of artists, the Seven and Five Society, which held its first exhibition in 1920. It is important to recall that, at the outset, this group declared against the more radical developments of the time, such as the Vorticism of Wyndham Lewis. Its members embraced the French Post-Impressionists, especially Cézanne, but wished to translate these influences into a British context. Underwood’s attachment to the Seven and Five Society, like his refresher course at the Slade, must be seen as a post-War desire to recover and foster the strength and tradition of British art - and, of course, implicitly, of British society and culture. Though Ben Nicholson’s election to the Society, in 1924, set it on a new path to Modernism, it was in the catalogue of the first exhibition that we can read the thrust of the group’s early ambition. The artists rejected, ‘the gladiators of the present warring sects’, preferring, instead, to ‘express what they feel in terms that shall be intelligible’. This is a reminder that, throughout his life, Underwood’s work was always intended to convey a subject or an idea, to explore the meaning of being human.

In 1920, Underwood began a brief spell as a teacher in the Life Class at the RCA. But his main preoccupation, for the next few years, was to establish and build up his own Art School: he opened The Brook Green School of Drawing in 1921. This was an unconventional School, attached to his own home and studio. The focus was on life drawing and he taught some of the most gifted students of the inter-war generation. Amongst these were Eileen Agar and husband and wife, Blair Hughes-Stanton and Gertrude Hermes. In the early 1920s, Underwood also concentrated on print-making, establishing the English Wood Engraving Society in 1925.

Though he was always determined to pursue his own line, to establish his own philosophy of art, Underwood did not wish to be isolated. He was attached to print-making, partly because of its ability to be consumed by the many. He insisted on the importance of subject matter – in these years, often specifically British subject matter – again because he wanted his art to mean something, to be comprehensible to a wide range of people. But Underwood resisted an easy path. He enjoyed working with difficult materials – intaglio wood engraving, sculpting in stone – because he required that his art should be testing, both intellectually and physically. And, before long, he was also an ambitious traveller, revelling in cultures which were alien to the mass of British people.

In 1923, Underwood visited Iceland. This introduced him to what he perceived as ‘primitive’ art and it led him to collect African carvings and study cave paintings, in Altamira, Spain. His travels became more frequent: to New York, in 1925; Mexico in 1928, where he studied Mayan and Aztec art. In 1932, he organised and wrote the catalogue for an exhibition, in the Sydney Burney Gallery, London, The New Spirit. This included pieces from Ancient Greece, Polynesia, Africa, China - and modern European sculpture, including his own work, the stone Torso, from 1925. Underwood was intrigued by the symbolism and the unfamiliar visual languages he encountered. There is no doubt that, through his energetic collecting of such pieces and his exploration of their aesthetic and anthropological significance, his own work was charged - sometimes rather self-consciously - with new visual potency. By this time, his preoccupation with subject-matter had become much less focused on being either British or superficially accessible. Underwood now wanted to penetrate to the heart of humanity, explore the elemental human condition.

Another War saw Underwood working, once more, in a camouflage unit (this time the Civil Defence unit in Leamington Spa). He also began a series of landscape watercolours, which are often quickened by a strong, repeated, rhythmic line and pattern. He increasingly used a high colour for both watercolour and oils - as if adopting the bright colour and strong, simplified line which he associated with 'primitive' artefacts. In 1944, he travelled extensively, on behalf of the British Council, lecturing and gathering a large collection of African arts and crafts and exploring African subjects (seen through the prism of 'primitive' art) in his own drawings and watercolours.

Following the War, whilst still painting and printing, Underwood also became increasingly engaged in sculpture. In each medium, his preoccupation with bold and regular rhythms - patterns which animate both solid materials and two-dimensional representation - came to dominate. Indeed, in his sculpture, this focus on exploring the intrinsic dynamism of the world turned him away from carving and towards casting in metal, which was none other than 'a fluid in the veins of the earth'; thus, flux was perpetually implicit. Although Underwood was still attached to the human figure and the visible world, he was using a kind of short-hand - an urgent summary, a boiling-down to essentials - to convey his subject, to capture the essence of its movement, the optimistic promise of change. But, between 1945-53, feeling himself somewhat alienated from his peers, Underwood exhibited little.

By 1959, Underwood had stopped painting altogether, concentrating on sculpture. One tends to think of his work at this period as being on a grand scale - and it is interesting to find that he wrote and published a pamphlet in 1960, Colossal Bronze Sculpture of Assyria - but many of his most engaging pieces are relatively small, perhaps maquettes or studies, where there is exquisite poise between grand idea and sculptural realisation. During these years, he was still exploring the philosophical and psychological, as well as the visual, underpinning of his art and was engaged in public debate with critics and artists whom he regarded as iconoclasts, replacing the human spirit with empty formalism.

In 1969, The Minories, in Colchester, held the first full-scale retrospective of Underwood's work. This led to an increasingly positive recognition of his art and his contribution to Modern cultural life. Late pieces, imbued with religious, mythological and poetic meaning, could be seen as building on his early works, where he had intently engaged with the lives and characters of people and places. And the foundation of his whole career, infused with his characteristically optimistic vision of life, clearly owed much to William Blake, whose complex, but ultimately glorious, Glad Day might be seen as his foundation stone.

[1] Paul Gough, A Terrible Beauty, British Artists in the First World War, 2010, p.17.

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