Leon Underwood: Figure and RhythmLeon Underwood: Figure and Rhythm

In Search of the ‘Primitive’

Leon Underwood had achieved a reputation as a painter-etcher, but in the 1920s he turned his attention towards sculpture and relief printmaking. Increasingly interested in the language of so-called 'primitive' art from non-Western cultures, Underwood was to amass a significant collection of tribal sculpture. Whilst certain critics such as Roger Fry were to admire such sculpture for its formal qualities, Underwood was particularly interested in its subject matter. In the early 1920s he began to carve stone and wood sculptures, with totemic forms based on the human figure. Having been awarded a Prix de Rome premium he travelled to Iceland (instead of Rome) in 1923 in his search for 'primitive' cultures, and in 1925 was one of the first modern artists to visit visited the ancient cave paintings at Altamira in Spain, which influenced his developing 'theory of styles'.

At his Brook Green School Underwood offered an alternative art training to some of the most gifted artists of the inter-war generation, including Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Blair Hughes-Stanton, and Gertrude Hermes. With a focus on experimental life drawing, the School was also a focus for experimental printmaking, and in 1925 Underwood and his pupils were to form the English Wood Engraving Society.  The following year he moved to New York, where he set up a private drawing school in Greenwich Village and worked as an illustrator for publications including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and illustrated several books, including his own Animalia and illustrated novel The Siamese Cat.