Leon Underwood



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Not on display
Leon Underwood 1890–1975
Object: 473 x 203 x 108 mm
Presented by Garth Underwood 1978


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. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Underwood remained strongly committed to subject matter, and more specifically to art of a figurative nature. This is evident in part in his many sculptural references to the torso as in Torso: The June of Youth 1937 (Tate N04975) and Torso 1930.

The sculpture 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. Here, Underwood amassed a collection of non-western art from which he took inspiration.

Underwood began Torso in 1923 and it belongs to a series of works which employ direct carving techniques and a simplified, angular rendering of the figure. Torso is a re-articulation of the classical subject of the torso in characteristic modernist terms, replacing verisimilitude and the practice of modelling with the use of direct carving into stone to create a sense of volume and simplified form. Torso also reveals Underwood’s preference for the voluminous block form that arises out of the crudely cut base, a practice employed by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), whom he greatly admired, to express his commitment to the ideal of ‘truth to materials’.

Underwood had also learnt of the technique of direct carving through Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915) and Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) whose Vorticist work had been inspired by the techniques of direct carving employed in non-western art and particularly in African art, and its subsequent repercussions on the simplification of form, both of which informed their commitment to the idea of ‘truth to materials’ and ultimately a kind of Primitivism. Furthermore Underwood had visited Mexico in 1928 where the use of stone in monuments and sculpture had further inspired his fascination with direct carving into stone using simple tools, and may account for him finishing the work after prolonged interruption in 1930.

In addition, Underwood’s use of geometric and curved planes to articulate the torso
was a technique employed by Gaudier-Brzeska in Redstone Dancer 1913 (Tate N04515) and Bird Swallowing a Fish 1913-14 (Tate T00658). Yet the contortion of the body in Torso which expresses both rest and potential dynamism was of particular concern to Underwood and is explored in a number of works in the 1930s. Likewise, although Torso is a sculpture that can be viewed in the round, it has the appearance of a low relief with the emphasis on the front of the body whose articulation is predominantly created in a series of shallow, sweeping lines, a method which was informed by the artist’s intense exploration of wood engraving.

Further reading
Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, London 1974, p 84
Ben Whitworth, The Sculpture of Leon Underwood, Aldershot 2000, p. 21, 22, 24

Celina Jeffery
August 2002

Display caption

Underwood was a sculptor, painter, wood engraver and writer. He founded his own art school in London in 1921. This work is inscribed by the sculptor with the date 1930 but Underwood recalled late in life that he began it in 1923 and worked on it over a period of years. It is the only sculpture of a female figure that he made from black slate. Although carved in the round, it is very shallow in depth. This type of work owes a debt to the sculptor Eric Gill, who in 1920 started to carve double relief carvings with a very shallow depth, usually of naked female figures.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

T02324 TORSO c. 1923–30

Inscribed ‘Leon U 30’ on reverse at base of figure
Slate, 16 1/8 × 6 1/8 × 2 1/4 (41 × 15.5 × 5.8) attached to a rectangular marble block 2 1/2 (6.4) high
Presented by Garth Underwood 1978
Exh: Sculpture by Leon Underwood, Kaplan Gallery, March 1961 (61, as ‘Torso - Black slate 1923’)
Lit: Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, 1974, p.84, repr. pl.51

This sculpture is inscribed 1930, but the artist told Christopher Neve in 1972–3 that it was carved in 1923, at the same time that he was working on the large Mansfield sandstone ‘Torso’ (repr. Neve, op. cit., pl.49). The latter was first exhibited in May 1924 in Underwood's exhibition at the Alpine Club, but T02324 is not listed in the catalogue, which suggests that it was not completed by then. Underwood's early sculpture is difficult to date accurately, as he worked on some pieces over a number of years, or altered them at a later date, and he sometimes exhibited pieces for the first time many years after they were made. This particular work was exhibited for the first time in 1961 (at the Kaplan Gallery), when it was dated in the catalogue 1923. However some of the dates in this catalogue are not reliable, since the wood carving ‘The Cathedral’ is listed there as 1924 but was actually made in about 1930.

Although there is a superficial resemblance between T02324 and the two early relief carvings ‘Hunter and Dog’ and ‘Female Figure’ (repr. Neve, pls.46–7) dated by Neve 1921–2, the carving of the Tate's ‘Torso’ is more skilful than either of these. A third ‘Torso’ in Ancaster stone (repr. Neve, op. cit., pl.124), though carved in the round instead of in relief, is closer in appearance to T02324 in the complex curves of its surface and the unusual outlines of the breasts. This ‘Torso’ is dated 1925 by Neve, but a photograph of it from the artist's collection (Conway Library, Courtauld Institute) is dated both 1931 and 1932.

The material of T02324 was identified by the artist as ‘Tournai Slate’. At least three bronzes of T02324 were cast during the 1960's.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981

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