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Volunteer Gallery Steward, Phil Tomlinson, takes a closer look at Leon Underwood’s The Prophet, 1931, from the Jerwood Collection.

I have been attracted by a small bronze sculpture in Room 5, Leon Underwood’s, The Prophet, 1931.

It is a small, stylised human figure, which is sitting in a sort of cross-legged yoga posture, with one arm raised up in a gesture and with its head tilted back. The bronze is a dark charcoal colour and you can just make out a sort of ornament that the figure has either on his clothes or draped round his neck and torso. It resembles the thread that Brahmins wear.

The work is made by Leon Underwood in 1931. He was a very active and creative artist who, in a long life was a painter, teacher, sculptor, writer, illustrator and stained glass and furniture craftsman. From his home in Hammersmith he set up his own art school where he taught, among others, Henry Moore. He saw active service in both world wars. He was an indefatigable individualist. Apparently he was influenced by African bronzes and Cycladic figurines, to me though this particular statue has a sort of Hindu sinuousness and the rounded, tactile quality of eskimo art or Toltec sculpture.

The dimensions, scale and size of this piece seem perfect to me. I like its abstract, rounded forms. The face is the only unrounded feature and that is like a little beaked opening into some sort of emotion in this otherwise smooth and harmonious expression of contained energy.

This piece is a bit of a mystery to me. That's why I like it. I have read, though, that Leon Underwood was inspired to become an artist after seeing William Blake’s painting, Albion Rose, 1796 (also known as Glad Day). This little statue maybe has something of the exaltation that Blake expresses in his work.

Image: Leon Underwood, The Prophet, 1931 © the estate of Leon Underwood, courtesy of the Redfern Gallery, London.

21 March, 2014
Written by Phil Tomlinson