Leon Underwood, Venus in Kensington Gardens, 1921 Oil on canvas, Collection of Lord Archer and Dame Mary Archer DBE, © The Estate of Leon Underwood
The human figure was the central focus of Leon Underwood’s art throughout his career. Born in London in 1890, Underwood had received a conventional art education at the Regent Street Polytechnic from 1907-10, the Royal College of Art from 1910-13 and at the Slade School from 1919-20, where he concentrated on life drawing with the celebrated Professor Henry Tonks. Underwood had a remarkable ability as a draughtsman and in 1920 was appointed as a life-drawing tutor at the Royal College of Art by the Principal William Rothenstein, where his students included Barbara Hepworth.
Underwood had an adventurous and unconventional character. In the years before the First World War, he travelled extensively in Holland, Germany, Poland and Russia, sketching, painting and experimenting with colour and technique. During the war he served on the Western Front as Captain in the Camouflage Section of the Royal Engineers, and subsequently received commissions from the War Artists Committee that focussed on depictions of the heroic figure of the soldier.
Underwood established his Brook Green School of Drawing at his home and studio in Hammersmith in 1921. After installing a printing press he produced a remarkable series of portrait etchings, including several self-portraits, which presented modern subjects with an intensity informed by the Old Masters. His father had run an antiques and print shop in Paddington, and before attending art school Underwood had copied historic etchings and engravings and encountered the visionary prints of William Blake and Samuel Palmer that were to inspire his later work.