Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press (1986)

{Ed. Note: This article is from Books and Vines contributor Neil.}

Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings contains a foreword by George Tute followed by engravings created by Leon Underwood in the 1920’s and 1930’s, printed by Simon Lawrence, proprietor of the The Fleece Press, a private press publisher of beautiful hand-made books and a great printer of wood engravings. Mr. Lawrence’s family made woodblocks for wood engravers from 1859 until very recently, and has been printing himself since 1980, making this project a perfect fit for him.

Leon Underwood (1890-1975) was a British engraver, illustrator, painter scholar, sculptor and writer.  He was also a charismatic teacher and leader.  He left the Slade School in London in 1920 after a disagreement over teaching methods.  He defiantly set up his own school in 1921 to counter “the harmful and repressive influences of orthodox art training…….All study which is a means to an end is eschewed, as it is believed that the youthful beginner cannot study for an end which has not been fully apprehended by him.”

Among Underwood’s pupils at his Brook Green School were Mary Groom, Gertrude Hermes, Blair Hughes-Stanton and Henry Moore.  He had a growing collection of ‘primitive’ art and this influenced his, and his pupils, work.  The foundation of Underwood’s teaching was life drawing leading to painting and sculpture and he saw wood engraving as one of a number of new and experimental ways to make prints.  He had made a group of etchings and experimented with lino-cutting prior to 1920.

In the early 1920’s a number of exhibitions had taken place in London showing wood engravings by artists from the continent, by the newly formed ‘Society of Wood Engravers‘, and artists such as Demetrios Galanis and Paul Gaugin.  The new wood engravers were seen as part of the ‘avant-garde’ and Underwood embraced this ‘new’ medium at his school.  The absence of technique and theory at the school led Underwood and his pupils to develop their own subject matter and methods of working.  In consequence, their subject matter and techniques were unique, untouched by the practices of other schools and their predecessors. Characteristics of the school’s engravings are fineness and variety of cutting, with very little of the woodblocks left untouched.  Light creeps around the forms and illuminates the surrounding darkness.  With a background in sculpture it is easy to imagine the cutting of the blocks being seen as another form of sculptural art with this aspect appealing to Underwood.

Underwood’s wood engravings show the influence of the African and Cycladic art he collected and wrote about.  They were further influenced by his travels in Mexico and South America. Underwood’s career as an artist and teacher prepared the way for new art movements and younger artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.  Underwood himself was so prolific as a painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer, collector, teacher etc. that he appeared to choose not to orchestrate his career in a determined effort to become a famous artist, but he became one of the greatest influences on the course of modern art in Britain.

The selection of his wood engravings from Simon Lawrence’s Fleece Press shown below are printed from the original blocks, on a hand-press, to a very high standard.  This high standard is reflected in all Fleece Press hand-made books, which one would expect based on what works Mr. Lawrence focuses on producing. As stated on his web site, “the books are usually illustrated by or about wood engravers and printmakers, with healthy interests in the official war artists, collections of letters, miniature books and T. E. Lawrence (but with a decided and almost complete absence of poetry).”  In a statement perfectly reflecting the spirit of private presses, Mr. Lawrence states “I publish what I am interested in, and by extension, what many of my customers will want to read and see.

I encourage Books and Vines readers to check out the website of The Fleece Press to see recent works, as well as to get a feel of upcoming works. Contact Mr. Lawrence here with any questions, comments or desires to place an order for any of his outstanding existing editions.

About the Edition

  • The Fleece Press 1986
  • Introduction by George Tute
  • 343mm X 266mm
  • Engravings printed from the original blocks on Barcham Green hand-made Sandwich paper, using an 1853 Albion Press
  • 200 copies
  • 188 copies bound in quarter leather with paste paper boards by Smith Settle
  • 12 copies were bound by James Brockman, Fellow of Designer Bookbinders, to his own design
  • This is number 143


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Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Book in Solander Box
Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Spine and Cover
Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Title Page and Frontispiece
Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Macro of Title
Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Sample Text #1
Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Contents
Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Macro Heading
Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Sample Illustration #1
Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Sample Illustration #2
Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Sample Illustration #3
Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press, Colophon

4 thoughts on “Leon Underwood: His Wood Engravings, The Fleece Press (1986)

  1. I will send some images of the Agnes Miller Parker to Chris.

    The Buckland Wright books must be one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by a small private press for a single artist in recent times. I think Simon Lawrence has already published five books and all of the images are printed from the original blocks etc. (including coloured engravings).

    I must agree with your comments on this type of press run by an individual. I do collect books of wood-engravings and the Leon Underwood volume is, technically, as good as it gets and his wonderful work deserves such a production. It takes someone like Simon Lawrence to publish a book of engravings by an artist who had so much influence over some of the better known engravers such as Blair Hughes-Stanton (the influence of Underwood on Hughes-Stanton is obvious when you compare them) and Gertrude Hermes. In fact, since discovering Leon Underwood through this book I have happily explored many artists and their work from that era that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    One of the things that I enjoy about Books and Vines when you send in a little text and some images to Chris, is the interesting information that is added. The relevant link in the article to the Lawrence family woodblock-making history and details about The Fleece Press and Simon Lawrence was added by Chris and the comments by Dlphcoracl reflect this type of press better than my own.

  2. My collecting interest generally avoids livre d’artiste books but there are always happy exceptions and this book illustrates why it is worth being open-minded. When I stray into this area of fine press publishing it is invariably to collect a book of fine photography. The Fleece Press is truly quirky and, as its owner Simon Lawrence unapologetically states, “I publish what I am interested in” and the press….”makes books which include something of the character of their creator.” For Mr. Lawrence this involves producing livre d’artiste books highlighting the work of several great wood engravers of the twentieth century.

    Although the Fleece Press is best known for its two books highlighting the work and life of Eric Ravilious this book on Leon Underwood is a gem and may be the best (for me, anyway) of the Fleece Press publications. Underwood’s wood engravings are truly exceptional and are less well known that the works of the Golden Cockerel Press wood-engravers and illustrators.. The two other books from the Fleece Press I find appealing are the book highlighting the wood engravings of Agnes Miller Parker and, perhaps best of all, a book entitled “Surreal Times. The bstract engravings and wartime letters of John Buckland Wright.” JBW was one of the greatest 20th C. wood engravers and this book features his less well known surrealistic work and abstract work while he lived in Paris during the 1930’s. However, what truly makes this book fascinating are JBW’s correspondence letters to his wife during and after WW II. They provide a fascinating window into how deeply France was affected and negatively changed after WW II as it struggled to recover.

    One constant in all of this is the extraordinary care and craftsmanship of Simon Lawrence and his Fleece Press. These are beautifully designed books produced with extreme care on the finest papers — with superb reproductions of the wood engravings.

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