Leon Underwood
7 March – 14 June 2015
Pallant House Gallery is delighted to present the first
major museum retrospective for over forty years of the
British artist Leon Underwood (1890-1975), described as
‘the precursor of modern sculpture in Britain’. The
exhibition explores Underwood’s treatment of the figure
throughout his career, from his paintings and etchings
created in the early 20th century, to his wood engravings and
sculptures of the 1920s and 1930s and beyond, when he was
heavily influenced by non-western art, particularly African,
Mayan and Aztec carvings. It also considers the influence of
the artist’s Brook Green School of Drawing where pupils
included Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Gertrude Hermes and
John Buckland-Wright.
As early as 1924 the art critic RH Wilenski had described
Underwood’s ‘restless progress’. By this time, the
charismatic and adventurous Underwood had studied at the
Regent Street Polytechnic and Royal College of Art, before
travelling in Holland, Germany, Poland and Russia in the
years prior to the First World War, and to Iceland in 1923
using his Prix de Rome premium. His early figurative
paintings are presented alongside his WW1 sketchbook and
‘Erecting a Camouflage Tree’ (1919), commissioned after
the war, which records his activities as Captain in the
Camouflage Section of the Royal Engineers from 1914-18.
After studying drawing with Henry Tonks at the Slade
School from 1919-20, Underwood was himself to become
an innovative teacher of life-drawing at the RCA to students
including Barbara Hepworth from 1920-23. Rejecting an
intellectual approach to drawing and instead emphasizing
individuality, Underwood opened the Brook Green School
of Drawing at his lifelong home and studio in
Hammersmith in 1921, offering alternative training based on
his growing interests in non-western art. He taught some of
the most gifted students of the interwar generation including
Henry Moore and Eileen Agar, and Blair Hughes-Stanton
and Gertrude Hermes (the subject of a complementary
exhibition at the Gallery). Underwood’s remarkably
proficient series of portrait etchings, including several selfportraits, created in a burst of creative activity between
1921-22, were to be followed by explorations of the wood
cuts and wood engraving medium during the later 1920s.
A founding member of the Seven and Five Society,
Underwood rejected pure abstraction. He was always to
remain rooted in the ‘life giving force’ of the figure and
sought to express a sense of ‘pure plastic rhythm’ in his
sculptures and drawings. In the 1920s and 1930s
Underwood’s interest in the language of so-called
‘primitive’ art resulted in a canonical group of sculptures:
pebbles carved into embryonic shapes and ambitious
wooden sculptures informed by totemic tribal forms. In
1928 he travelled to the Gulf of Mexico with the author
Phillips Russell where he was profoundly influenced by
Mayan and Aztec art. A significant group of the drawings,
paintings, wood engravings and linocuts that were inspired
by Mexican themes are exhibited, together with his prints
for Russells’ 1929 book about the Mexican journey, entitled
‘The Red Tiger’. During the 1920s he also visited the
ancient cave paintings at Altamira, Spain, which contributed
to his ‘theory of styles’, and moved to New York where he
worked as a magazine illustrator and opened a private lifedrawing school in Greenwich Village. The exhibition will
include books of his verse and woodcut illustrations
including ‘Animalia’ (1926) and an illustrated novel ‘The
Siamese Cat’ (1927). Later in his life, Underwood travelled
to West Africa to lecture for the British Council in 1944-45,
where he became one of the few artists of many influenced
by African art who actually visited the continent.
In the 1930s Underwood’s growing concern with expressing
his own philosophy resulted in the reopening of his drawing
school in London, the publication of the magazine ‘The
Island’ to which artists including Henry Moore and Eileen
Agar contributed, and the writing of the treatise ‘Art for
Heaven’s Sake: Notes on Philosophy of Art To-Day (1934).
His argument was that ‘primitive’ work avoids abstraction
and instead concentrates on subject matter, thereby
communicating to the masses. As a result his concentration
on the figurative continued when many of his
contemporaries were concerned with abstraction.
This exhibition makes an important contribution to the
understanding of Underwood’s oeuvre, re-establishing his
position at the forefront of artistic modernity in Britain in
the 20th century. The exhibition and accompanying
catalogue will build upon Ben Whitworth’s research for the
catalogue raisonée (funded by the Henry Moore Foundation
in 2001), and the artist’s recent inclusion in the ‘Modern
British Sculpture’ exhibition and ‘Mexico: A Revolution in
Art’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art, but
significantly it will place Underwood’s sculptural oeuvre
within the context of his paintings and other artistic
expressions. Furthermore, it will extend the Gallery’s
reappraisal of overlooked Modern British artists.
INTERVIEWS/ IMAGES: Anna Zeuner, Head of Communications [email protected] 01243 770 823 / 07734 710 212
Alongside the exhibition there will be complementary
displays of the Modernist architect Joseph Emberton
(Underwood’s friend and colleague on a number of projects)
and the prints of Gertrude Hermes and Blair Hughes-Stanton
who met at Underwood’s Brook Green School. The
exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated
catalogue and a programme of talks, events and workshops,
including a new learning resource for schools.
The exhibition is curated by Simon Martin, Artistic Director
of Pallant House Gallery, who has written extensively on
Modern British Art. He has written catalogues and
monographs of Edward Burra, Eduardo Paolozzi, Colin Self
and John Tunnard.
About Pallant House Gallery:
Pallant House Gallery is a unique combination of an historic
Queen Anne townhouse and contemporary extension,
housing one of the best collections of Modern British art in
the country, including important works by Auerbach, Blake,
Caulfield, Freud, Hodgkin, Nicholson, Paolozzi, Piper and
Sutherland. Widely acclaimed for its innovative temporary
exhibitions and exemplary Learning and Community
Programme, the Gallery has won numerous awards since re–
opening in 2006 including the Gulbenkian Prize (now The
Art Fund Prize), the largest for arts and cultural
organisations in the country.
INTERVIEWS/ IMAGES: Anna Zeuner, Head of Communications [email protected] 01243 770 823 / 07734 710 212

Leon Underwood - Pallant House Gallery