Leon Underwood

Casement to Infinity


Not on display

Leon Underwood 1890–1975
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 635 mm
frame: 915 × 765 × 64 mm
Presented by Garth Underwood 1978


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.

Further reading:
Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, London 1974, p.131, 132, reproduced pl.94

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘Leon U 30’ b.r.
Oil on canvas, 30 × 25 (76.2 × 63.5)
Presented by Garth Underwood 1978
Exh: The Neo Society, Godfrey Phillips Galleries, May–June 1930 (55, as ‘Casement of Infinity’, repr.); Leon Underwood, Archer Gallery, June–July 1971 (46); Leon Underwood and 12 Girdlers Road, New Art Centre, November–December 1976 (12, dated 1929)
Lit: Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, 1974, p.131 and repr. fig.94

‘Casement to Infinity’ is one of six paintings exhibited by the artist in the first and only exhibition of ‘The Neo Society’, at the Godfrey Phillips Gallery in May 1930. The artist's collection of newspaper cuttings (in the Courtauld Institute Library) includes a favourable review from R. H. Wilenski (Evening Standard, May 10, 1930), referring to Underwood's paintings as ‘symbols of metaphysical ideas’, but also a report (Daily Sketch, May 17, 1930) that the artist had removed all his works from the exhibition after he had been told that one of them, ‘At the Feet of the Gods’, ‘was not fit for reproduction in a newspaper’. The objection was that the still life in the painting included an enema, but the artist defended the work as ‘a mystical symbolism of modern civilisation as I see it’. Underwood was one of ten artists in this exhibition, but the only one whose work is now represented in the Tate Gallery collection.

Underwood's career is marked by abrupt changes of style, deliberately undertaken whenever he considered his message could most appropriately be expressed in a certain way. The six paintings shown in ‘The Neo Society’ exhibition were one such use of a certain style for a short time, in this case symbolical still lifes. Following a visit to Mexico in 1928 a number of Underwood's paintings were of subjects from Mexican history. Three of these - ‘Coast of Yucatan’, ‘The Fates’ and ‘Chac Mool's Destiny’ (all of 1929) - are a departure in his painting and a move towards the style of ‘Casement to Infinity’ of the next year, in that they are designed around a steep, theatrical perspective and combine unrelated objects as if in a narrative. It is likely that he borrowed this from the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, which had been exhibited at Tooth's in October–November 1928, after Underwood's return from Mexico. De Chirico's paintings of sculptures of gladiators and classical horses in interiors resemble Underwood's ‘Chac Mool's Destiny’ particularly, and correspond with his interest in extending the meaning of sculpture. The paintings of 1930 were still lifes of contemporary objects, and a further source for Underwood was undoubtedly the marine still lifes of Edward Wadsworth. These had most recently been exhibited in Tooth's in May–June 1929, and typically featured shells, a distant view of the sea and a sharp separation of foreground and background, all also present in T02323.

Underwood's message in these paintings is not explained directly by the titles, but was discussed by him in 1972–3 with Christopher Neve, who writes of the subject: ‘the accumulation of still-life objects has paradoxically to do exclusively with the passage of time and contemplation: growth, in the roots, in the egg and in the spider busy spinning on the gnomon of the sundial; the single fallen wing to suggest arrested flight, and, instead of the traditional metaphysical symbol of decay - the fly on the skull - Underwood has put a butterfly: a thing of great beauty given poignancy by the extreme shortness of its survival’ (op. cit. p.131). The painting was not exhibited by the artist after 1930, and from this time he was more concerned with sculpture than painting.

The wooden frame was carved by the artist. The signature, which was originally in brown, was repainted over the varnish before the painting was acquired, and in older photographs is not visible.

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

You might like