After studying at the Slade in 1919, Leon Underwood embarked on a prolific career as a sculptor, painter and print maker, producing an eclectic body of work. In 1930 Underwood produced ten paintings which he described as metaphysical works, of which Casement to Infinity is one.
The painting was made at Underwood’s home and studio in Girdlers Road, Hammersmith, London, from where he ran the Brook Green School of Art (1920-39), counting Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Eileen Agar (1899-1991) among others as his students. Upon his return from New York and Mexico in late 1928, Underwood began a flurry of artistic meetings and exhibitions, beginning with joining the Neo-Society in 1930. Casement to Infinity was one of six metaphysical paintings exhibited by Underwood in the group’s first and only exhibition.
Casement to Infinity could be described as a modern variation of the traditional Vanitas still life which explores the theme of eternal and spiritual renewal through a series of complex symbols. The still life is set in an Arcadian landscape that evokes the passing of a golden era, signified above all by the classical temple in the distance, but also in the vines whose roots envelop the side of the cliff and encroach the still life itself. The notion of decay is reiterated in the shattered glass of the broken window which opens on to the seascape.
The arrangement of objects is situated on a ledge, which at second glance appears to be a sun dial upon which a spider spins a web - a further indication of the passing of time. The objects themselves suggest a life and a spiritual cycle: the shell a symbol of earlier forms of life, the evolution of the mammal indicated by the egg which also signifies birth, and finally the human skull, the universal symbol of death, upon which is a butterfly that can connote transience but also resurrection and the soul. There are two other objects on the dial, a pipe whose placement maybe random or have a personal meaning, and a single wing, which may be a reference to the Greek god Hermes the messenger who wore wings on his head and ankles.
The still life gives onto a sea and skyscape in the distance which are also imbued with symbolism, but in this case of an alchemic and hermetic nature. At the top of the cloud is a star which denotes the all seeing eye of god, which has special significance for Freemasons. There are two triangles, the triangle of perfection which faces upwards and symbolises spiritual perfection and secondly, the triangle facing down which signifies the temporal and physical. The point at which the triangles meet is the horizon, which contrasts temporality with infinite time and space, as implied in the title.
The manner in which Underwood painted the metaphysical works may be described as Surrealist in their hyper-real rendering. The painting is also overt in its reference to Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), whose metaphysical paintings often incorporated still life arrangements of unrelated objects set in dramatic perspective, and used a limited and sombre colour palette. A further source of inspiration is likely to have been Edward Wadsworth’s (1889-1949) marine still lifes such as Still Life 1926 (Tate N05147), which features shells, a distant view of the sea and sharp separation of foreground and background.
Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, London 1974, p.131, 132, reproduced pl.94