After studying at the Slade School, Leon Underwood embarked on a prolific career as a sculptor, painter and print maker, producing an eclectic body of work. Throughout the 1930s Underwood explored the expression of rhythm and dance in sculpture using polished and reflective surfaces. Herald of a New Day, is the original plaster matrix for the three chased bronze sculptures of 1934.

The Herald of a New Day also gave rise to a series of dancing figures all produced in 1934; Violin Rhythm, Negro Rhythm: Harlem, New York and Harlem Rhythm. All are an expression of music and dance - the Herald visualising the ecstatic sound of a trumpet through a figure poised on one leg, the rest of the body arching while playing a trumpet. Underwood’s polishing of the surface in the 1932 and 1934 versions is an essential component of their ability to convey a sense of rhythm.

Underwood first explored the expression of dance and rhythm using polished metals in 1932 with The New Spirit: A Tribute to the Life of Michael Faraday, a sculpture indebted to Umberto Boccioni’s (1882-1916) Unique Forms of Continuity in Space 1913 (Tate T01589), from which he noted the potential of reflective surface to express dynamism. Underwood also learnt of the role of polished metal in Asian art from Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983), a former member of the Brook Green School of Art who had began to experiment with the technique herself in such works as Baby 1932 (Tate T03221). Both Underwood and Hermes responded to Constantin Brancusi’s (1876-1957) use of polished brass and his condensing of anatomical detail to minimal forms. Accordingly, although the Herald retains its essence as a figure, it has been reduced to a salient form, which is emphasised by its reflective surface. The Herald’s elegant form and slick surface also show an awareness of contemporary Art Deco design.

Herald of a New Day is unabashedly life affirming in its title, its depiction of music and dance and crucially in its surface reflection. Underwood primarily used this surface to achieve a sense of movement, perpetuated in the play of light, shadow and shine. This exuberant and spirited figure invites both touch and reflection, and offers an intimate opportunity for the viewer moving around it to share in the celebration of the vitality evoked.

Further reading
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery Catalogues: The Modern British Pictures, Volume 2, London 1964, p.743
Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, London 1974
Ben Whitworth, The Sculpture of Leon Underwood, Aldershot 2000

Celina Jeffery
August 2002