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Leon Underwood was born in Shepherd's Bush, London, in 1890, and studied initially 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 went to the Slade School of Fine Art for a year (1919-20), and won the Prix de Rome in 1920. The prize should have entailed a trip to Italy, but, instead, Underwood used the money to travel to Iceland several years later.
In 1921, Underwood opened the Brook Green School of Art, in Hammersmith. This school initially mainly taught wood engraving, with an emphasis on life drawing, and was the alma mater of students such as Gertrude Hermes, Blair Hughes-Stanton, Henry Moore, and Eileen Agar. In the period leading up to his foundation of the school, Underwood's travels and interest had led him into the realm of Mayan, African, and Aztec carvings. He visited the United States and Canada in 1926-7, making a trip down to Mexico in 1928. He published Animalia, a children's book, in 1926, but also a study of the Ife and Benin heads, as well as books about ancient African sculpture. These publications ran alongside his own sculpture-making, which was directly influenced by all that he had seen. Underwood strongly believed that subject matter was at the basis of all of his artistic creations - he thought that art could not be produced abstractly, without a subject. His sculptures were "forms created by inspired belief". He believed abstraction to be a trick, "artfully making emptiness less conspicuous".
In 1931, Underwood re-formed the Brook Green School of Art, and, in the same year, founded The Island, a quarterly to which C.R.W. Nevinson and Henry Moore contributed, amongst others. He continued to make sculptures, his forms expressive and fluid. Perhaps one of his most renowned pieces is 'Totem to the Artist', held by the Tate, in which primal forms seem to writhe and curl within the wood. He also painted, at times with a Surrealist influence-dream landscapes on strange shores.
Underwood's teaching was interrupted for a second time, in 1939, by the Second World War. He served once again, in the Civil Defence Camouflage unit, until 1942. In 1945 he visited West Africa. He continued steadily working throughout the rest of his life, dying in 1975. Despite a retrospective at the Kaplan Gallery in 1961, he achieved more recognition as a teacher than as an artist.
Leon Underwood's estate is represented by the Redfern Gallery.