Leon Underwood

The Fireside


Not on display

Leon Underwood 1890–1975
Tempera on canvas
Support: 460 × 359 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1977

Display caption

This intimate scene shows a woman cradling a baby in front of a fireplace. The mother and child is a very traditional subject in Western art. However, in Underwood's image the clothes and furnishings emphasise the modernity and mundanity of the scene. In addition the age and appearance of the woman suggest that she is not actually the mother, but perhaps a nurse.

Leon Underwood was a sculptor, painter, wood engraver and writer. He founded his own art school in London in 1921.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T02248 THE FIRESIDE 1919

Inscribed ‘Léon Underwood 1919’ b.l.
Tempera on canvas, 18 1/8 × 14 1/8 (46 × 35.9)
Purchased from the New Grafton Gallery under the terms of the Chantry Bequest 1977
Prov: ...; R.G. Waldron, Kent by 1964, sold Christie's 13 July 1964 (368) bt. Sanders of Oxford; sold Christie's 30 October 1970 (98) bt. Fine Art Society; Archer Gallery, 1971; sold Christie's 13 July 1973 (266) bt. New Grafton Gallery.
Exh: The Slade Tradition 1871–1921, a Centenary Contribution, Fine Art Society, October–November 1971 (109); The Slade, 1871–1971, RA, November–December 1971 (39); English Painting 1900–1940, New Grafton Gallery, October–November 1973 (35); RA, 1977 (86).
Repr: Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, 1974, p.40, pl.11.

‘The Fireside’ is a painting of the artist's wife, Mary, and their first son, Garth. Underwood had married Mary Colman, whom he had first met at the Royal College of Art in 1911, in January 1917 and their son was born in July 1919. In May of that year Underwood had purchased the studio at 12 Girdler's Road, Brook Green, W. 14, and this is the room in the basement known as the nursery. It has been identified by the position of the bell-pull next to the fire and from information provided by Peyton Skipworth of the Fine Art Society. He wrote: ‘when it was in our exhibition it was hanging by my desk; one day I felt a presence and a voice behind me said “I never painted that!” and then, after a pause, “well if I didn't paint it I can't think who did, that is our cupboard which doesn't shut ...” and proceeded to identify every detail in the picture. The “presence” was, of course, Underwood himself and also, I think, his wife.’ The fact that Underwood was unable at first to identify his picture suggests that it was sold soon after it was painted, and Christopher Neve confirmed that members of the Underwood family knew that it had not been in the studio at Girdler's Road in later years. The present scratched signature is slightly below an earlier signature ‘G.C.L. Underwood’ which has been overpainted. ‘G. C. L. Underwood’ was how the artist was known during his period of army service, but soon after the war he began to prefer ‘Léon Underwood’.

In September 1919 Underwood had enrolled for a one-year ‘refresher’ course at the Slade School of Art, and spent much of his time studying life drawing under Tonks. Christopher Neve told the compiler that Underwood was making experiments in paint technique at this time and that this explained the use of tempera, a medium he does not seem to have used earlier. The style of this painting is consistent with other works of the period like ‘Dressmakers’ (repr: Christopher Neve, op.cit., p.18), but has a stronger feel for detail than the more expressionist works of the late 1920s and 30s.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979


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