Leon Underwood was born in Shepherd's Bush, London, in 1890, and studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic from 1907-10, then at the Royal College of Art from 1910-13. He briefly journeyed to Russia in 1913 to copy primitive paintings. His study was interrupted by the outbreak of war, during which time he became a Captain in the Royal Engineers Camouflage Section. He disguised observation posts, making them look like trees, documenting this experience with drawings and paintings of his everyday work. When he returned to England, Underwood took a 'refresher' course at the Slade School of Fine Art for a year (1919-20), studying under Henry Tonks. He painted stylised scenes based on his wartime experiences; his soldiers erecting a camouflage post was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in 1919, while his painting of soldiers standing at an observational post was purchased by Manchester Art Gallery. In 1920, he won the Prix de Rome. The prize should have entailed a trip to Italy, but Underwood used the money instead to travel to Iceland, several years later, documenting what he saw in a series of oil paintings. 
 
 
In 1921, Underwood opened the Brook Green School of Art, in Hammersmith. This school initially specialised in wood-engraving, with an emphasis on life drawing, and students included Eileen Agar, Gertrude Hermes, Blair Hughes-Stanton and Henry Moore. Moore in particular was heavily inspired by Underwood's teaching, and indeed, together with his pupils, Underwood formed the Society of English Wood-Engravers, in 1925, and visited Iceland with Hughes-Stanton. Much of the '20s was spent travelling; he was one of the first artists to visit and study the Palaeolithic cave paintings at Altamira, in 1925, and in the following two years made seminal trips to America and Canada, before moving on to Mexico in 1928. He published numerous books detailing his experiences; 'Art for Heaven's Sake' was written in 1934 about African art, followed by his travel narrative on Mexico, 'The Red Tiger'. Having taught himself carving in the early 1920s, his work combined Mexican, Native American and African sources as well as Primitivism, and he used a variety of different materials for his sculpture. Initially he worked with hand-chased brass, the sheen of which created a sense of movement and fluidity. In others, he used English yew, and the metal overlay and polished surfaces allowed for an even greater sense of balance and rhythm. These techniques also owe something to art-history; the importance of polished, reflective surfaces were inspired by Boccioni, while Underwood took inspiration from Brancusi, for the way in which anatomical forms were translated into simple forms. His skill for achieving elegant forms and slick surfaces is well demonstrated in a series of dancing figures, completed from 1932 to 1934, including Herald of New Day, the plaster cast for which is now in the Tate. Towards the end of the decade, Underwood had perfected the use of sculpting in bronze, and his study of a dynamic, twisting torso was sold to the Tate in 1938.   
 
 
While best known as a sculptor, Underwood continued to paint at all times during his career. Rendered in oils on canvas, his subjects of the 1930s tended to be Surrealist in nature, described by the artist as 'metaphysical'. A typical example, Casement to Infinity, is now in the Tate. During the outbreak of the Second World War, Underwood served his country again, this time in the Civil Defence Camouflage unit, until 1942. In 1945 he visited West Africa, where he purchased a number of ancient masks and carvings, some of which he later sold to the British Museum. He also published several important books on African art, which were illustrated with his own etchings and woodcuts. His works were generally out of fashion with more modernist tastes of the 1950s and '60s, and indeed, Underwood openly renounced abstract art. However, he was described by one critic as 'the father of modern sculpture in Britain', and in 1953, his bronze sculpture of a juggling figure was purchased by the Arts Council of Great Britain. He undertook numerous public commissions during this decade, including a bronze crucifix for Ampleforth Abbey, in 1958. Notably, he was included in a group exhibition with Barbara Hepworth, Moore, Marino Marini and Jacob Epstein, at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1957, while the following decade saw several solo shows of sculpture at London's Kaplan Gallery. A retrospective was held at the Minories Art Gallery, Colchester, in 1969. His reputation has grown steadily since his death, with the Redfern staging a retrospective in 1996, and a large-scale retrospective held at Pallant House, Chichester, in 2015. 
 
 
Leon Underwood's estate is represented by the Redfern Gallery.
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Leon Underwood

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