Leon Underwood (British 1890 – 1975) was a noted British painter, sculptor, engraver, writer and teacher. Born in London on Christmas Day 1890, Underwood would become one of the founding fathers of British Modernism.
Underwood started his artistic career by copying and repairing prints in his father’s Antiquarian shop in Praed Street, London. He studied at Regent Street Polytechnic, London from 1907 – 1910 and won a scholarship to the painting department of the Royal College of Art in 1910.
With the outbreak of the First World War, Underwood enlisted with the Royal Horse Artillery and served with the 2nd London Field Battery in Woolwich and Gommecourt, France. Later in the war he was recruited as a camoufleur by the Royal Engineers, to design and implement military camouflage. Invalided back from France in 1918, Underwood spent the remainder of the war submitting drawings to the Ministry of Education’s Propaganda section.
In 1919 the artist enrolled in a one-year refresher course at the Slade School of Art and was awarded the premium prize in the Prix de Rome art competition. Underwood also started experimenting with stone carving, drawing inspiration from the ‘primitive’ ideal – an art movement that was popular with artists in the early 20th century.
Whilst other artists veered towards abstraction in the 1920s and ‘30s, Underwood’s work remained rooted in the human figure. His approach to life-drawing was revolutionary because his free and expressive approach broke with the academic tradition of art schools. In 1920, within a year of completing his own studies at the Slade, Underwood joined the staff at the Royal College of Art (RCA) as assistant teacher of life drawing. His unorthodox approach to teaching was often in conflict with established ‘art school’ training, but was welcomed by his students eager in the inter-war years for new forms of expression. When he later resigned from his post some of his former students, including Henry Moore, asked him to continue giving them evening classes at his own, recently opened, Brook Green School of Drawing.
Underwood was also an early and avid collector of non-Western art, particularly African, Mayan and Aztec carvings. The influence of trips to Mexico (1928) and West Africa (1945) is obvious in many of his works, and Underwood was arguably at his best when he found just the right amount of realism to go with the directness of expression.
His interest in indigenous art was fueled by his desire to better understand ‘primitive’ cultures. His fascination with rendering the solid mass of a figure on paper as well as in a three-dimensional, sculptural form drove him to not only study ‘primitive’ artworks, but also adopt some of the compositional elements in his own work.
Underwood would later write and publish three groundbreaking books on tribal art in the 1940’s & 50’s: Bronzes of West Africa, Masks of West Africa and Figures in Wood of West Africa. The need to find a way of expressing a third dimension – beyond what he could achieve as a draughtsman and painter – was a driving force in Underwood’s love of sculpture. It was an aspiration that never left him as he explored his perennial passion, the human figure and the rhythm that it embodied, through different media and materials. Underwood continued to exhibit throughout his life, culminating in a large retrospective exhibition held at the Minories, Colchester in 1969. The artist died in Clapham, London in 1975.
Public collections holding Underwood’s work include the Tate Gallery, Courtauld Institute of Art, National Portrait Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, Ashmolean Museum and the National Museum Cardiff. Two books have been published on Leon Underwood and his work, the most recent includes a complete catalogue of his sculpture, The Sculpture of Leon Underwood, 2000. Pallant House Gallery held a major retrospective exhibition of his work in 2015.