After studying at the Slade School in 1919, Leon Underwood embarked on a prolific career as a sculptor, painter and print maker, producing an eclectic body of work. In December 1925, dissatisfied with the current art market, Underwood left his home and studio in Girdlers Rd. Hammersmith, London, from which he ran the Brook Green School of Art (1920-39), for New York, where he opened a life drawing school in Greenwich Village and where he worked successfully as a book illustrator. The oil painting The Ember (Italian Immigrant) is the only major work produced during the artist’s period in New York (1925-8) and was one of his most ambitious works to date.
The Ember (Italian Immigrant) a portrait of an immigrant, was based on a photograph of the mother of Underwood’s friend. It is a sombre image of a dislocated and disenfranchised elderly woman, which starkly contrasts with the chic and luxuriant persona of New York in the 1920’s. Underwood had been engaged with the theme of the nobility of peasantry for many years, but few of his works deal with social themes with such directness and sincerity. Here the portrait of an old woman sitting in a bleak interior achieves monumentality in its scale (it is one of his largest paintings to date) and treatment. It owes much to the Slade interest in symbolism and, in particular Underwood’s enthusiasm for Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), whose blocky and simplified treatment of the figure, often infused with spiritual content, made a significant impact upon Underwood’s early work. Here the ember, a piece of glowing coal in a dying fire, is personified by the elderly woman and her surroundings which are covered in an array of hot colours, whose is surface is roughly textured. There is also a distinctive stylistic reference to the figure in Umberto Boccioni’s (1882-1916) Materia of 1912, whose bulky clasped hands are repeated in The Ember to draw attention to her toil and hardship.
This use of symbolism or allegory was fundamental to Underwood’s art, and he later acknowledged his intention, ‘to inflect painting and sculpture with associative meanings; with symbolism, drama and even a story. To use any means – already coined or personally discoverable – if they are capable of ‘holding’ poetry’.
Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, London 1974, pp. 96-7, reproduced p.99
Ben Whitworth, The Sculpture of Leon Underwood, Aldershot 2000