Leon Underwood was born in London on the 25th of December 1890, he was the eldest of three sons. His father, George Underwood, was an art dealer therefore Leon was exposed to art from an early age. His career took a different direction from his father’s however as he decided to study at the Royal College of Art. His journey to becoming an artist was interrupted by the First World War where he served in both the Royal Horse Artillery and as Captain in the Royal Engineers. Underwood created several pieces of work which reference his time during the war such as his portrait of Captain G.B Mckean which now resides in the Imperial War Museum Collection.
Underwood is often described as the ‘precursor’ or ‘father’ of modern sculpture. Despite this accolade, his style is difficult to define which could be attributed to his varied practice and frequent experimentation. He constantly used different techniques such as printmaking, painting, drawing and sculpture however he did have a consistent theme underpinning his work which was the human figure. Underwood’s fascination with form stems from his research into what he termed the ‘cycle of styles’ which explores the ever-changing perception of beauty through the lens of scientific and technological advancements.
Underwood was especially inspired by his travels to Mexico and Africa writing several books about the bronzes, figures and masks in West African art. One of which was published in 1949 and is titled Bronzes of West Africa, within this book he writes in-depth descriptions of both the Benin and Ife styles of artwork. It is clear that he has approached the research from an anthropological perspective. He was especially interested in the artwork of these two civilizations as they were unencumbered by influences from the Western world. In Figure and Rhythm, Leon Underwood, Simon Martin explains that ‘Underwood was to reinterpret Western classical ideals of beauty using African women as the protagonists’. Underwood’s artwork was, and still is, progressive and contemporary not just in style but also in the research and ideology behind the artwork.
Underwood was not only an artist but a teacher, he taught at several institutions including the Royal College of Art between 1920 and 1923. His time here was cut short however due to an argument with Sir William Rothenstein, the head of the Royal College at the time. Though the contents of the disagreement between the men is not well documented there are hints which suggest that their relationship was not always so strained. Underwood sat for Rothenstein on several occasions during his time at the Royal College of Art, these chalk portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection.
Renowned artists Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were amongst the pupil's Underwood taught during this time. He made a significant impact on Henry Moore, in an interview Moore stated that:
‘Except for Rothenstein there was only one teacher I learned anything from – Leon Underwood, then a young painter, new on the college staff, with a passionate attitude towards drawing from life. He set out to teach the science of drawing, of expressing solid form on a flat surface – not the photographic copying of tone values, not the art-school imitation of styles in drawing.’
Underwood continued to teach, setting up his own school ‘Brook Green School’ in Hammersmith which opened in 1921. The most notable students he taught during this time were Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Eileen Agar, Gertrude Hermes, Blair Hughes-Stanton, Vivian Pitchforth, Raymond Coxon, Edna Ginesi, Mary Groom, Agnes Miller-Parker and Nora Unwin.
In later life, Leon Underwood was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Society of Sculptors. He continued to create work up to his death in 1979. A retrospective of Underwood’s work was exhibited at Pallant House Gallery in 2015.
Leon Underwood’s most notable exhibitions include: ‘Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings and Engravings’, The Leicester Galleries in 1934; ‘Sculpture in the Home’, Arts Council in 1946; ‘Leon Underwood’, Beaux Arts Gallery in 1953; ‘Leon Underwood retrospective’ The Minories in 1969; ‘Bronzes and Wood Engravings’ , Thomas Agnew & Sons in 1973; ‘Leon Underwood, Mexico and After’, National Museum of Wales in 1979; ‘Modern British Sculpture, The Royal Academy of Arts in 2011; ‘The Sensory War 1914-2014’, Manchester Art Gallery in 2014; ‘Leon Underwood, Figure and Rhythm’, Pallant House Gallery in 2015.