1890 December 25. Born in Askew Road, Sheperd's Bush, London, the eldest of three sons of Theodore George Black Underwood and Rose Underwood (nee Vesey). The previous three generations of the Underwood family had all been antiquaries and numismatists. George had an antique and print shop in Praed Street, Paddington. Leon was Christened at the church of St Paul, Hammersmith, in February 1891. At five, began to attend St Michael's Primary School, St Michael's Street, Paddington.
1904 January. Attended Hampden Gurney Church of England School, until December when he left to work in his father's shop.
1907 Saw Blake's coloured engraving Glad Day and was deeply affected by it. September, moved to Goose Green, Dulwich, and enrolled as full-time student at Regent Street Polytechnic under Percival Gaskel. Made first drawings at Old Metropolitan Music Hall, Edgware Road.
1910 October. Scholarship to the painting department of the Royal College of Art, where he became the student of Gerald Moira and E.C. Alston. Reacted strongly to Fry's first Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in November.
1911 Made brief visit to the Hague at Easter to decorate a lunette in the Peace Palace. Summer sketching expedition to the Lake District with Edward Armitage. Stayed at Walthwaite. Won Sketch Club prize at RCA. Began to investigate colour harmony and chromatics, and constructed screened easel to experiment with colour theory when painting in the open.
1913 After winning Sketch Club competition a third time, was failed painting diploma in September. December, joined Armitage in Dresden and went with him to Vilna, Poland. First visit, at Christmas, to Ravanica estate, Minsk.
1914 Painted landscapes and portraits in Poland. June, returned to London and re-sat painting diploma. Passed. Rejoined Armitage at Ravanica. On outbreak of war in August, escaped round Baltic via Finland and Sweden. Lived with Armitage at 43 Blenheim Crescent. November, enlisted in Royal Horse Artillery, Albany Street Barracks.
1915 Transferred to the 2nd London Field Battery, Woolwich, as First Lieutenant.
1916 January. To France. Gommecourt. Loos. Transferred to Camouflage Section, Royal Engineers, at Wymereux, under Girond de Sevolat. War drawings in Illustrated London News. Began frequent flying.
1917 January. Married Mary Colman. Submitted model and designs for repeating trench mortar to War Office. First Carving, Dove, in Caen stone. Promoted Captain. Mentioned in despatches
1918 June. Invalided back from France with severe gastro-enteritis. Recuperation at Ilfracombe. Wrote ballet, Rickets. Rented rooms in Aynhoe Road, London W14, in September. Submitted trial drawings to Ministry of Information, Propaganda Section, in June, with a view to painting camouflage picture for the Imperial War Museum. Conceived Not in Anger sculpture project.
1919 April. Painted Cpt. G. B. McKean, VC, MM and Erecting a Camouflage Tree commissioned by Muirhead Bone's committee for Imperial War Museum. Both pictures, and many sketches made in France, in Camouflage Artists' Show at Burlington House in October. Sale of first works in New English Art Club exhibition. First son, Garth, born in July. Bought studio at 12 Girdlers Road, Hammersmith, in May. Began to carve pebbles. Enrolled for year's refresher course at Slade in September, and devoted himself almost exclusively to life drawing under Tonks. Founder member of Seven and Five Society.
1920 Watercolours made on holiday at Wolverton. Experimental stone carvings. Awarded premium in Rome Prize in June but refused to go to Rome. August, joined staff of RCA as assistant teacher of life drawing.
1921 January. Opened Brook Green School: among first pupils were Eileen Agar, Jessie Aliston Smith, Rodney Thomas, Blair Hughes-Stanton. Installed etching press at Girdlers Road and embarked on two years of constant activity in printmaking. Bought boat and made many studies of fishermen at Poole Harbour, Dorset. Began work on first major painting, Venus in Kensington Gardens
1922 May. First exhibition at Knewstub's Chenil Gallery at 183 Kings Road, Chelsea. Campbell Dodgson began buying etchings for the British Museum, including the Self-portrait with Landscape Background. Family holiday at Ashurst, Kent, with the Knewstubs in July-September resulted in many watercolours, paintings and etchings. Began Peasantry. Daughter born November.
1923 June. Argued with William Rothenstein and resigned teaching post at Royal College of Art. To Paris and Iceland on Rome Prize grant. Trekked from Reykjavik to Husavik with Rodney Thomas and Blair Hughes-Stanton. Portraits and landscapes evolved to a more symbolic style. Began to think about channels of communication in primitive culture. Worked his way back from Iceland by trawler. Concentrated increasingly on collecting African carvings.
1924 May. Venus in Kensington Gardens exhibited for the first time in show shared with Olive Snell ad Ralph Chubb at the Alpine Club Gallery, Mill Street . Holiday at Birchington, embryo pebble carvings. Began evening class at Girdlers Road of RCA students including Vivian Pitchforth, Henry Moore and Raymond Coxon. First cast of Flux by Parlenti. Ashurst Mother and Child awarded honourable mention at Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh. Essay on Underwood by R.H. Wilenski in Draughtsman, from series on contemporary British artists edited by Albert Rutherston, published by Ernest Benn. The others were: Edna Clarke Hall, Henry Rushbury and Randolph Schwabe.
1925 Completed Mansfield sandstone Torso. July, painted in Dalmatia with a group of his students including Gertrude Hermes. Travelled in Italy. Abandoned Florence for Altamira in September and became deeply committed to theory of cylice of styles on seeing cave paintings. Exhibited watercolours at St. George's Gallery, George Street, in October. Left for New York on the Bremen in December.
1926 Went to Palm Beach to paint murals but received no commissions. Returned to New York in May and began work as an illustrator for Brentano, John Day Company and on Vanity Fair. Opened a private drawing school of the 8th Street West, Greenwich Village. Painted portraits. His own book of verse and woodcut illustrations, Animalia, published in November by Payson and Clarke. Joined by Mary Underwoods in May and went to Penguin Island, Bay of Fundy. Showed Animalia prints at St. George's Gallery in December, and at the Weyhe Gallery, Lexington Avenue, New York.
1927 April. Returned to England and went to Nanjulian, Cornwall, to write novel, The Siamese Cat, with woodcut illustrations. Delivered it complete to Brentano in New York in September. Watercolours of Cornwall. June, Peasantry sold in London for £200.
1928 January. Travelled down the south-eastern shore of Gulf of Mexico, up the rivers of Tabsco and over the Sierra Madre to the Pacific east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, with Phillips Russell, studying Mayan and Aztec art. Made great many Mexican drawing and paintings with a burst of enthusiasm for his new subject mater. The Siamese Cat published in April. Showed Mexican wood engravings and lino cuts at the St. George's Gallery in December. Second son born in February.
1929 The Red Tiger, Phillips Russell's book about the Mexican journey, with illustrations by Underwood published by Brentano in New York and Hodder and Stoughton in London. First of the major Mexican paintings, Cortez and Montezuma. Began Mexican colour prints. Showed watercolors at the Modern English Watercolour Society in March. Experimented with Surrealism, The Fates. Began to teach drawing one day a week at St. Martin's School of Art.
1930 Completed Marina's Remorse. May, showed Mexican Love Song and the sculpture, Fist, at the first exhibition of Neo at the Godfrey Phillips Galleries, Duke Street; six Surrealist pictures, including Casement to Infinity and At the Feet of the Gods, at the National Society exhibition at the Grafton Gallery, which he angrily withdrew on the second day. Drew Feedom.
1931 June. Founded and published magazine, The Island, edited by Joseph Bard, with a statement by Gandhi and contributions by Underwood, Henry Moore, John Gould Fletcher, Laurence Bradshaw, Ralph Chubb, Grace E. Rogers, Eileen Agar and Velona Pilcher. Four issues. Completed large elmwood Regenesis.
1932 Carved Cathedral and published engravings and plans for it in The Island, November, organised and wrote detailed exhibition catalogue for exhibition of Primative, Greek, Polynesian, African, Chinese and modern European sculpture, including his own Mansfield sandstone Torso, 1925, and The New Spirit, 1932, at the Sydney Burney Gallery, St James's Place.
1934 First pierced sculptures on 'lark' theme. April, important exhibition of sculpture, paintings, drawings and engravings at the Leicester Galleries, Leicester Square, with an enthusiastic catalogue introduction by R. H. Wilenski. Published pamphlet, Art For Heaven's Sake (Faber and Faber) containing thoughts and aphorisms on the subject of art and technology. Carved plaster model for Herald of New Day acquired by Victoria and Albert Museum and since transferred to Tate Gallery. Completed Carrara Marble Mindslave, and began African Madonna in Lignum vitae. Experimented with inlaid line in sculpture.
1935 November. Showed paintings and sculpture, including African Madonna, at Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton Place. Juggler (first state), Negro Rythum and completed June of Youth.
1936 March. Black Madonna arrived in Johannesburg on way to English Church Native School, Rosettenville, and caused uproar. Exhibited paintings and sculpture with The National Society in February. October, designed and engraved new symbol for The London Mercury.
1937 Completed chased bronze portrait of George VI. Showed bronzes, including New Spirit, at the Royal Institute Galleries, Piccadilly, in February. Drawing Wendy in Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. George VI on show at Fine Art Society, New Bond Street, in May.
1938 Began to carve chair in Italian walnut, and constructed loom at Girders Road to weave fabric for seat.
1939 Started Irish marble Sculptor. Made last of big colour prints on Mexican themes. Successful exhibition of prints, paintings and recent sculpture at Zwemmer Gallery, Litchfield Street.
1940 Joined Civil Defence camouflage unit at Leamington Spa, and began a long series of landscape watercolours.
1941 Rented Greenhill near Leamington Spa, and started work on an invention by which he was able to construct a relief model of terrain by means of super-imposed projected photographs. Spent much time flying.
1944 Completed small inlaid carving, Fishwife. From June to October, travelled extensively in west Africa, lecturing for the British Council and assembling a large collection of carvings, pottery and textiles. Made many African drawings and watercolours.
1945 Designed cover for victory number of The Listener (a variation on the Freedom drawing of 1930). Last full-scale exhibition at St. George's Gallery, until 1953. Began to devote himself increasingly to bronze-casting experiments and writing on African art. November, discussed collection of african art on television.
1946 First oil paintings on African themes using fragmented method of suggesting space.
1947 Figures in Wood of West Africa published by Alec Tiranti.
1948 Masks of West Africa published by Tiranti. Mindslave in LCC open-air sculpture exhibition, Battersea Park, in May. Unknown Warrior at Society of Scottish Artists, Edinburgh, in October. December, article under the title 'Abstraction in African and European Art' published in Studio.
1949 Bronzes of West Africa published by Tiranti. January, wrote a long article with William Fagg for the Royal Anthropological Society's journal Man: 'An Examination of the So-called Olokun Head of Ife, Nigeria'.
1953 May. Showed African sculptures, drawings, paintings and prints for the first time, at the Beaux Arts gallery, Bruton Place. His catalogue essay, under quotations from Einstein and Hegel, was an attempt to justify optimistic subject matter and uphold his cycle of style theory after a disagreement with Herbert Read.
1954 Painted tempera mural, London Parks, for Shell canteen, St Swithin's House, St Swithin's Lane, EC4.
1955 February. Invented a method of casting his relief panel in beaten lead for exterior wall of Commercial Development Building, Old Street, EC1. June, began stained glass and two tempera murals for church of St Michael and All Angels, New Marston, Oxford, consecrated in September.
1957 August. Experiments in bronze casting disproved British Museum theory about the casting of Mesopotanian axe heads. Showed sculpture at Zwemmer Gallery with Epstein, Moore, Hepworth and Marini, in June. Slit forms became more pronounced in bronzes. Completed and cast I Believe.
1958 Published 'Bronze Age technology in Western Asia and Northern Europe' in Man, nos. 13, 39 and 64. Made bronze crucifix and candlesticks for Ampleforth Abbey. Crucifix reproduced on the cover of Crucified and Crowned by William Barclay (SCM paperback.)
1959 Mindslave at the Antwerp Biennale in May. Showed Lot's Wife at Smithsonian Institute, Washington. Stopped painting entirely in order to concentrate on sculpture.
1960 Pamphlet Colossal Bronze Sculpture of Assyria, published by Royal Society of British Sculptors. July, showed bronzes in 'Artists of Fame and Promise' exhibition at Leicester Galleries. Commissioned by LCC in March to make bronze group. The Persuit of Ideas, for Hilgrove Estate NW6. Renewed burst of bronze sculptures on optimistic themes with opened surfaces.
1961 March. Important one-man exhibition of sculpture, paintings and prints at Kaplan Gallery, Duke Street, with catalogue introduction by Eric Newton in which he pointed out similarities between Underwood's and Moore's formal experiments in the 1920's. New bronzes included Selfencounter, Lifesection and Forty Thousand Years. Pamphlet The Cycle of Styles in Art, Religion, Science and Technology published by The Royal Society of British Sculptors.
1962 Increasing dependence on psychological comment in sculpture, with hollowed forms and roughened bronze skin. Completed Archaeology and Gleaner. Comprehensive one-man exhibition at N.M. Acquavella Galleries, East 57th Street, New York, in October.
1963 April. Second one-man show at Kaplan Gallery including recent bronzes on biblical themes, notably Moses Transcendent, David and Goliath and the more massive and static Isaac and Jacob.
1964 May. Totem to the Artist, 1934, shown in the Royal Academy summer exhibition and purchased under terms of The Chantrey Bequest. Made honorary member of Royal Society of British Sculptors.
1966 Renewed work on philosophical book in three parts under general title of Cycle of Styles.
1968 Completed bronzes, The Chosen, and began Weightless Rhythm and Neighbours. New Spirit and Political Prisoner sold at Christie's in July.
1969 August. First important full scale retrospective at The Minories, Colchester, organised by the Victor Batte Lay Trust. Catalogue essay by Sir John Rothenstein in which he discussed Underwood's output and philosophy in the context of his period. The result was a general critical re-awakening. April, June of Youth sold at Christie's and The Sculptor and Birth of Eve at Sotheby's. Showed at the Archer Gallery, Grafton Street.
1971 June. Drawings, including chalk and pencil studies for Venus in Kensington Gardens at Agnew's, Old Bond Street, and Paintings 1922-52 at Archer Gallery. Exhibition of Mexican paintings and colour prints, with some later sculpture, at Kemp Town Gallery, Brighton.
1972 January. Drawings 1921-59 shown at Archer Gallery.
1973 October. One-man show of small bronzes and wood engravings at Agnews.
Born in London, his father owned an antique and print shop in Paddington where he worked before attending the Polytechnic School of Art in 1907. In 1910, he began studying at the Royal College of Art and the following year he was commissioned to paint a mural at the Peace Palace (now the European Court of Human Rights), Hague. In 1913, he failed his painting diploma, despite winning the Sketch Club competition for the third time. The next year was spent travelling through Europe with fellow painter Edward Armitage, before resitting the painting exam in 1914, which he passed. He enlisted in the First World War and continued to draw while on the field.
In 1919, he had his first exhibition at the New English Art Club, bought a studio in Brook Green, and took a refresher course at the Slade, studying life drawing under Henry Tonks. He also became a founder member of the Seven and Five Society. He began teaching at the RCA in 1920 and opened the Brook Green School of Drawing at his studio the following year. Among his students were Eileen Agar, Gertrude Hermes and Henry Moore.
Underwood travelled extensively throughout his life, including trips across Europe, the USA, West Africa, Iceland and Mexico; the ‘primitive’ art of the Aztecs and Africa particularly influenced him. An extraordinary polymath – a sculptor, painter, engraver and inventor, to name a few – he wrote prolifically on a variety of art topics and founded the magazine The Island, to which Moore and C R W Nevinson contributed.
A number of retrospective exhibitions were held during his lifetime and after his death. His work is represented in the collection of the Tate and in public collections in Britain and internationally.