Leon Underwood Biography

Leon Underwood




Painter, sculptor, and printmaker George Claude Leon Underwood was born on December 25, 1890, in Shepherd's Bush, London, England. His father was a fine art dealer, allowing Underwood to be exposed to many art mediums from an early age. From 1907 to 1910 he attended the Regent Street Polytechnic, then pursued fine art studies at the Royal College of Art for three years, during which time he was commissioned to paint a mural for the Hague's Peace Palace.

With the onset of World War I he enlisted in the Royal Horse Artillery, but was soon after moved to a field battery unit. He was then promoted to Captain and served in the Royal Engineers' Camouflage Section. Using his artistic skills, he disguised observation posts as "trees" and, inversely, went into the "no man's land" of Western Front to make detailed drawings of trees that stood on potential battlefields, which would then be replaced by fake, steel trees used by British military observers.  

When the war ended Underwood returned to his studies, now at the Slade School of Art, and he set up a small private art school in his studio, which he called Brook Green School. Among those who would attend his courses over the years were Henry Moore, Elileen Agar, Roland Vivian Pitchforth, Raymond Coxon, Gertrude Holmes, and Blair Hughes-Stanton. He won the British Prix de Rome in 1920 but chose to hold off on travel, reserving the prize money. He held his first solo show in 1922 at the Chenil Gallery, London, and taught life drawing classes at the Royal College of Art for two years until, in 1923, he decided to travel to Paris and Iceland, utilizing the Prix de Rome money. His travels continued from there. In 1925, he became the first officially recognized contemporary artist to visit and closely observe the cave drawings at Altamira; following this, he traveled to the United States and Mexico. 

Though his first influence was that of the Impressionists, his time in the rural areas of Spain and Mexico attracted him to themes of spirituality, folklore, and human behavior, seen through a Surrealist lens. Once he returned to England in 1928 he embarked on several projects that reflected his travels and touched on his new-found philosophical journey. He published The Island periodical magazine, which included writings by Mahatma Gandhi and Henry Moore, as well as contributions from Eileen Agar who helped fund the magazine. In addition to these projects of his own exploration, he was a professional portraitist who was commissioned by Buckingham Palace to create a bust of Edward VIII - which was promptly removed from public eye after his abdication and eventually reworked by Underwood into a bust of King George VI. 

Underwood returned to his work as a camoufleur with the onset of World War II and remained on duty until 1942. Nearing the end of the war he began traveling throughout Africa, collecting over 500 examples of African sculpture and woodcarving and writing several articles and books on the technology of African art. His afinity for the expression found in "primitive" art greatly influenced his own work, and for the later part of his career he focused on bronze sculpture that would variously be referred to as abstract and primitive, itself. 

Despite a prolific body of work and an inexhaustible desire to explore forms of expression, Underwood's posthumous recognition faded not long after his death in 1975 in London. This is likely due to the very thing that he was drawn to: everchanging, explorative themes and styles, making his oeuvre somewhat esoteric and difficult to categorize by the art market. However, a retrospective of his work was held at the Pallant House Gallery in 2015, reviving appreciation for his work. 

Selected Exhibitions:
1928, '29: Leon Underwood, Mexican Wood Engravings, St. George's Gallery, London
1934: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, and Engravings by Leon Underwood, Leicester Galleries
1946: Sculpture in the Home, Arts Council of Great Britain
1953: Leon Underwood, Beaux Arts Gallery, London
1973: Bronzes and Wood Engravings by Leon Underwood, Thomas Agnew & Sons, London
2011: Modern British Sculpture, Royal Academy of Arts
2013: Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940, Royal Academy of Arts
2014: The Sensory War, 1914-2014, Manchester Art Gallery
2015: Leon Underwood, Figure and Rhythm, Pallant House Gallery
2017: Becoming Henry Moore, Henry Moore Foundation