Leon Underwood, Self Portrait in a Landscape, 1921, Etching on Paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Leon Underwood

Leon Underwood

Sculptor, Scholar, and Collector

January 13, 2019 By: Leif Birger Holmstedt

Underwood, The Artist & Scholar

George Claude Leon Underwood (1890 – 1975)—a sculptor, painter, draughtsman, graphic artist as well as an author, a teacher and a philosopher—should be recognised as one of the founding fathers of British modernism.

Underwood had a pervasive urge to travel and to study other cultures—during his lifetime he travelled across Europe, South America and Africa. He trained at the Royal College of Art from 1910 and was in Russia in 1913 to copy old paintings and sculptures of riding horses. He returned to England at the beginning of World War I to serve in the Royal Horse Artillery before he joined the Royal Engineers Camouflage Service as a captain. Together with the British painter Solomon Joseph Solomon, Underwood made a valuable contribution to the development of the art of camouflage, especially camouflaging observation posts.

He attended the Slade School of Fine Art and founded ‘The Island’, a graphical quarterly, in 1931. One year after matriculating at the Slade School of Fine Art to study draughtsmanship with Henry Tonks, Underwood became the assisting professor for life drawing at the Royal College of Art. Later, he would open Brook Green School of Art (1919 – 1954) in his private studio where some of his students included Eileen Agar, Blair Hughes-Stanton, Gertrude Hermes, Roland Vivian Pitchforth, Henry Moore and Raymond Cox-on. Even if the men and women that attended Underwood’s classes would later be recognised as some of the most influential English artists, Leon Underwood never attained much fame. The former manager of Tate Britain, Sir John Rothenstein said of him, “no artist from his generation has received so little honour or actually, been so neglected.

Henry Moore has later acknowledged his great debt to Underwood’s teaching.

Leon Underwood at work in his Studio with ‘Atalanta Shiva’ (1938)
Photograph taken in August 1974 by Wavingfish

In connection with the exhibition ‘Leon Underwood: Figure and Rhythm‘, the first major museum retrospective of Underwood’s work for over 40 years, held at the Pallant House Gallery in 2015, Artistic Director Simon Martin stated to Port Magazine the reason behind the exhibition:

A period of more than forty years has passed since the latest retrospective exhibition dedicated to Leon Underwood, a forgotten hero of British art who helped to nurture some of the brightest talents of sculpture in the UK, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. This month, a new exhibition will open at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester with Underwood’s often disregarded paintings, wood carvings, etchings and sculptures…

While other British artists were deliberating over the question of how to ‘go modern and be British’ Underwood sidestepped the debate entirely by drawing on his first-hand experience of native traditions and ‘primitive’ cultures. He wrote seminal books on the masks, bronzes and wooden figures of West Africa and became fascinated by the relevance of prehistoric art to the 20th century.

The medium of sculpture seemed to fuse the directness and vitality of ‘tribal’ art with Underwood’s understanding of European traditions and works such as ‘Recumbent Knight (Catafalque)’, heralded his return to sculpture.


Leon Underwood
'Creation: The Seventh Day', 1950

Image Courtesy The Redfern Gallery
"Bulgy Eyes" Yoruba Head, Nigeria
Published in Leon Underwood: 'Bronzes of West Africa', 1949

Image Courtesy George Ortiz Collection

Dr Peter Catterall, of the University of Westminster, said of his visit to the exhibition:

Westminster has produced a number of distinguished alumni in the field of the arts. I had not realised before I went to the exhibition that Leon Underwood was among them. Underwood, who attended Regent Street Polytechnic in 1907-10, is the greatest unsung British artist of the 20th century.

… he was in many ways a visionary artist, willing to challenge accepted norms by, for instance, painting versions of classical images of the Greek goddess Venus, but depicting her as African. He was rightly critical of contemporaries who aped ‘primitive’ art without understanding the context of the artistic languages of West Africa or Mexico which he carefully incorporated into his work. The result is a unique artistic vision that references and respects various cultures, all executed with superb draughtsmanship.

Leon Underwood is best known for his sculptural works in bronze, marble, stone, and wood. Inspired by historical African, Mayan, and Aztec carvings, his work found a new direction in the 1920s and 30s—expressionism and realism were combined to create embryonic shapes like the beautifully formed ‘Untitled (Foetus)’ carved from a peddle.

His visits to Mexico and to a number of West African countries in 1928 and 1945 respectively inspired him to incorporate the ‘tribal’ into his work. He was one of the first British artists to develop a new style based on the historical, as evidenced in his works ‘Mountain God’, ‘Recumbent Knight (Catafalque)’, and ‘African Madonna’ now at the St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa, a wood carving “which reinterpreted Gothic sculptural forms through the lens of African tribal sculpture—and was intended to encourage young Africans to work in their native traditions“, according to Simon Martin.

Leon Underwood
'Recumbent Knight (Catalfaque)', 1935
Private Collection
Leon Underwood
'Yoruba Mother', 1949

Image Courtesy The Redfern Gallery

According to the catalogue for the exhibition ‘Leon Underwood: Figure and Rhythm’:

Underwood curated the ground-breaking exhibition ‘Sculpture Considered Apart from Time and Place’ for the Sydney Burney Gallery (which created the celebrated 1934 Model Modern Art Gallery on long-term loan to Pallant House Gallery) presenting the work of modern artists including Moore, Hepworth, Hermes, Skeaping, Modigliani, Degas, Gaudier-Brzeska and Underwood alongside dancing Shivas from India, masks from Africa, Aztec figures and Buddhas from China. Underwood sought to express what he called ‘sculptural consciousness’, linking all periods.

Underwood’s profound awareness of non-Western art was deepened after he travelled through West Africa in 1944, supported by the British Council, to lecture on the significance of African ‘tribal’ art on Western culture. His studies of indigenous ‘tribal’ art confirmed that apparently abstract form in African sculpture, in fact, held recognisable meaning to its respective tribe. Returning to England with an enormous collection of African art (much of which was later sold to the British Museum, among other museums), Underwood was to write three seminal books on the bronzes, masks and figures in wood of West Africa.

Underwood was consumed by the need to understand the techniques and methods used by African artists in the creation of Ife and Benin heads, and wooden figures and masks. To aid in this understanding, Underwood researched and authored three books on African art including ‘Figures in Wood of West Africa’ (1947), ‘Masks of West Africa’ (1948), and ‘Bronzes of West Africa’ (1949).

He is said to have mentored and formed a close friendship with William [Bill] Fagg, the African specialist and curator (later the Keeper of Ethnography) at the Department of Ethnography of the British Museum (1938 – 74). Together they researched and explored the technique of bronze-casting in Ife and Benin works of art. In addition, Underwood acted as an advisor to Bill Fagg for the 1970 ‘The Tribal Image: Wooden Figure Sculpture of the World’ exhibition at the Museum of Mankind (now the British Museum)—he selected the eighty pieces exhibited at the show.

Masks of West Africa, 1948
by Leon Underwood
Bronzes of West Africa, 1949
by Leon Underwood
Figures in Wood of West Africa, 1951
by Leon Underwood

"In writing of the art of West Africa, I have had prominently in mind the uncertainty about the meaning of the term 'primitive' [as] applied to art."

Underwood, The Collector

Leon Underwood was an early and enthusiastic collector of non-Western art—he started a collection of African art in 1919. His drive to collect intensified during his visit across West Africa. In her article, ‘The Leon Underwood Collection of African Art‘ for the Journal of Museum Ethnography, Celina Jeffery states that over a 50-year period, Underwood amassed a collection of more than 550 works (mostly collected during his trip to Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Benin, and Nigeria between 26 May – 04 October 1945).

Although Underwood was an eclectic collector, a significant portion of his collection was formed of works created by artists from West African ethnic groups—the majority being made by Yoruba artists from Nigeria. He believed that much more than works created by artists from other ethnic groups, the Yoruba retained their local traditions and as such, the art was much more ‘authentic’, they were ‘ritually’ used and retained their spiritual and religious meaning. “Unlike Jacob Epstein, [Underwood] abhorred ‘fakes’” states Jefferey.

Jefferey goes further:

In an article written for the magazine ‘Nigeria’, Underwood described the impact of Africa on European art, but more significantly he spoke of the problems of the impact in reverse, suggesting bleakly that ‘westernisation descends upon them’.

In particular, Underwood was critical of the western art education system that was being developed. He met a number of artists during his visit, including Kponton in Lome, Dahomey; Zaganado, a Dahomian carver; Makide in Lagos; and Bamgboye in Omu, Ilorin to assess the impact of ‘westernisation’ on their ‘traditional’ art-making. Bamgboye, later to become a well-known Yoruba artist who taught at the first governmental experimental school run by J.D. Clarke, was accused by Underwood of having acquired an ‘art consciousness’. For example, Underwood critiqued the artist for producing Ifa divination tables for the western market, suggesting ‘so soon as a traditional carver is made art-conscious—by European notions of art as something specialised, apart from ordinary life—his powers of expression decline’.” Underwood had indicated a rejection of education as well as a fear that increasing commodification of African artefacts as ‘art’ would lead to the loss of their inherent value.

But what was the intrinsic meaning of African art for Underwood and how may we account for it? Underwood’s criticism of art training and commercialisation suggests that he valued the perceived untutored creativity of the African artist, which crucially he linked to the ritualistic power of the African object. Unlike art in the modern west, which he believed had lost its ‘imagination and intuition’ in the course of its commercialisation, African art was deemed to have retained its singularity and ritual power.

Yoruba Sango Shrine Figure, Nigeria
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Yoruba ose Sango Staff, Nigeria
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
Olowe of Ise
Yoruba Olumeye Bowl with Figures, Nigeria
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

Of the many Nigerian sculptures in Underwood’s collection, three stand heads above the pack—first is the olumeye offering bowl collected by Underwood in Nigeria in 1945. The bowl, now at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, was carved by Olowe of Ise (b. 1875), the master artist in the court of the Yoruba king’s palace. Underwood sold the bowl to Sidney Burney in 1946. It was then subsequently sold to William Moore in 1946 and owned by William McCarty-Cooper from between 1985 to 1995 before it was donated to the Smithsonian.

Second is the much publicised and exhibited Yoruba ose Sango staff collected by Leon Underwood in Ogbomosho, Nigeria, in 1945. Also now at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, the staff was sold to René d’Harnoncourt who owned it from before 1947 to 1968. The gallery, Entwistle finally sold the staff to the Smithsonian in 1988. It’s been exhibited at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (‘African Negro Sculpture‘, 24 September – 19 November 1948),  the Brooklyn Museum (‘Masterpieces of African Art‘, 21 October 1954 – 2 January 1955), and the Art Institute of Chicago (‘Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought‘, 10 February – 1 April 1990). Most recently, it’s been published in the 2017 book by scholar Herbert M. Cole ‘Maternity. Mothers and children in the arts of Africa‘.

Finally, is the highly distinctive Yoruba Sango shrine figure collected by Underwood in Ogbomosho, Nigeria in 1946. John J. Klejman acquired the piece from Underwood and had it in his possession until 1953 when it was sold to Nelson A. Rockefeller. The shrine figure, which would have been used by devotees of Sango to connect directly with the god of thunder and lightning, now forms part of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his book ‘Figures in Wood in West Africa’, Leon Underwood described the figure as ‘The Earth Feeding Mankind’.

Yoruba Ose Sango Staff, Nigeria

Image Courtesy National Museums Scotland
Luba Mboko Bowl Bearer, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Provenance: Leon Underwood, London || Josef Herman, Suffolk

Image Courtesy Zemanek-Münster

Leon Underwood continued collecting into the 1960s but the vast majority of his collection was donated and sold to museums (including the British Museum) and private collectors in the 1950s through to the late 1960s. According to Celina Jeffery, thirty-five pieces from the Underwood collection were sold by the Carlebach Gallery in 1952 and forty-nine pieces through the Wengraf Gallery in 1961.


Leif Birger Holmstedt

ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA contributor, Leif Birger Holmstedt is a designer, collector, and author of books including 'African Masks' Borgen 2003 and 'Magic Masks and Figures from Greenland' Borgen 2008. Leif Birger Holmstedt has also published over fifty articles, and has curated exhibitions at the Brandts Museum in Odense including 'Robert Jacobsen's Universe' (1991), 'Corneille's African Face' (1994), and 'Masks, Power and Magic. Art from the Marc Leo Felix Collection' (1997).

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