The Redfern Gallery is pleased to announce a major retrospective exhibition of a prolific British artist, Leon Underwood (1890-1975).
Underwood was an extraordinary polymath, constantly seeking new challenges, learning new skills, and exploring many different cultures around the world, building up an eclectic body of work during his lifetime. This exhibition aims to examine the many facets of Underwood's career, with artworks spanning five decades and produced on three different continents.
Born in London, his father owned an antique and print shop in Paddington where Underwood 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. At the Brook Green School Underwood advocated self-discovery and the development of individuality, although perhaps ironically, his own methods and outlook often came to dominate that of his pupils. Many did not truly find their own identity as artists until after leaving his school.
The sphere of his influence was particularly felt in life drawing; rather than encouraging his students to copy light and shade, Underwood encouraged pupils to seek out form, balance, mass and direction. The effect of his tutelage was felt so strongly that it was written in the 1930s that ‘there is no English artist of his generation who can inspire those who believe in him with more enthusiasm or who has had more influence on other English artists of his age.’ The Brook Green location would also play host to a long succession of fantastic fancy-dress parties, well-attended by students and friends: all part of the intimate atmosphere he cultivated. From the Brook Green School would emerge both the Society of Wood Engravers (1925) and the short-lived publication The Island.
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. In 1925, he visited Altamira and became deeply influenced by the cave paintings there. Following his quest for primitivism, Underwood journeyed to Mexico in 1928 to study Mayan and Aztec art. Mexico became a dominant theme in his paintings and prints, which he premiered later that year in an exhibition at St George’s Gallery in December. His travelling companion, Phillip Russell, wrote a book detailing their expedition, The Red Tiger (published 1929) with illustrations by Underwood. He was also deeply influenced by African sculpture and wrote several books on the topic.
Underwood is represented in the collections of the Tate, Courtauld Institute of Art, National Portrait Gallery, V&A, and the British Council Collection (all London), as well as the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), Lincolnshire County Council, and National Museum Cardiff, and in private collections in Britain and internationally.
All images Copyright The Estate of Leon Underwood care of The Redfern Gallery.
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