Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Art for Heaven’s Sake: William Blake and Leon Underwood

'Torso' 1923

The opening sentence of John’s Rothenstein’s intro to Christopher Neve’s 1974 critical biography Leon Underwood makes the point that this artist “allowed himself to be half-forgotten”. Half forgotten he has remained, and nearly forty years on Neve’s book remains the only full study, though Ben Whitworth filled a significant gap in 2000 with his book on Underwood’s sculpture. A great deal could be said about Underwood – “father of modern British sculpture”, building on the experiments of Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska and mentor to Moore and Hepworth; pioneer of white-line lino cutting and wood engraving and tutor to Hughes-Stanton and Gertrude Hermes, and so on.

At its weakest, often later in his career, his work descended into a picturesque or sentimental primitivism; Underwood may have birthed Henry Moore, but the pseudo-modernist figurative “new humanism” of Nigel Konstam et al, and even the “ethnic” soap stone sculptures beloved of import shops, might be seen as in a line of descent from him. But at his most effective, mostly around the mid 1920’s to my mind, his art combined a deep appreciation of non-European cultures with the best advances of modernism. It deserves to be far better known and much more often seen.

"Man must have art for heaven's sake, for the scriptures of his religion define his heaven through intuition & imagination by the most perfect sublimation of his old desires": a wood engraving with typeset inscription, showing Underwood in full Blakeian mode, from 'Art for Heaven's Sake'.

Underwood set himself apart from the prevailing trends of his time by his insistence on the primacy of the subject in art. As he was no kind of social realist, he became, essentially, an early neo-romantic. In his father’s antique shop he had encountered the prints of William Blake, and a Blakeian sensibility informs his philosophising on art, notably in Art for Heaven’s Sake, a little pamphlet published by Faber’s in 1934. Some of the aphoristic “notes” in this verge on the platitudinous, but others have some force.  For instance:

The real essence of any organised religion has always been art. The priests have hidden the essence behind the effigies and attributes of personal gods.

At his exhibition Blake made an appeal to the public to rate art higher than popular aesthetics of his time. He forsook those aesthetic theories after having unsuccessfully tried to make use of them.

I have been able to make use of some of the aesthetic theories of to-day. My difficulty with so many of them is that they are too abstract – too dissociated from life to hold poetry which runs out of them as out of a colander.

For the artist, everything counts – even breakages count – and the imaginative artist’s selection, for his purpose, from everything that is available to him must tend towards complexity. His path is therefore one of synthesis, not analysis.

I do not consider intuition better for being independent of reason. The ideal is the synthesis of the faculties, as Blake implies by ‘The marriage of Heaven and Hell’.

Science has nothing to do with art – nothing.

Interestingly, given his own immersion in the cultures of Africa and Latin America, Underwood was at pains to play down  the claims of primitivism:

The modern styles which derive from primitive and archaic forms are not, as they stand, valid for the expression of the Western mind; because from their rude abstractions, the Western mind is too distantly removed by its complex development. They can appeal only to its child or immature states.

'Mindslave' 1934

This equation of “primitive” peoples with children (and “primitive” art with child art) has long been discredited. Underwood also repudiated both “mechanics” in art and the “return to mediaevalism” of the Arts and Crafts movement. What he envisaged in their place, beyond his broad appeals to “originality”, “freedom” and “imagination” (all supposedly “English racial traits”), is not made clear, either in his philosophising nor consistently in his artwork, which eventually came to embrace at times a decorative Africanism close to tourist art, or else a sort of twee anatomical athleticism.

But at other times, his work could be astoundingly sure and beautiful, and the best of it far transcends the unevenness of his career, his tendency towards kitsch, and the uncertain rhetoric of his theorising.

One response to “Art for Heaven’s Sake: William Blake and Leon Underwood

  1. Sonia Wiffen March 8, 2015 at 10:13 am

    A much overlooked Artist, who will hopefully one day get the recognition he richly deserves.

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