George Underwood is not exactly a mythmaker, he weaves the materials for myths. Although a natural raconteur, he does not try to tell us the stories that he paints, rather he gives us the elements from which we may construct our own fantasies and tell our own stories. There may be centaurs and minotaurs in his paintings, but their pelts are likely to be patterned in tartan or suede; while the robes and headgear worn by his figures may seem to be leather, many are made up of faces. Some of the animals and people come from dreams, others just arrive in his waking mind ‘possibly from a parallel universe’.
In this show of ‘Imaginary People’, faces are everywhere. George has a word for it. ‘I have the gift of pareidolia. It’s seeing faces in inanimate objects. I remember when I was about 10 years old seeing Dali’s painting called The Disappearing Bust of Voltaire. There are two nuns next to each other—then they seem to magically transform into the bust of Voltaire. I thought this was sensational. I have been trying ever since to paint faces in as many different ways I can.’ His faces seem impassive at first, but the more one looks, the more emotions flicker through.
Dalí aimed ‘to make the abnormal look normal and the normal look abnormal’, and that is just what George achieves. Drawing is the core of what he does. Although he had encouraging teachers at school and college, and in his career as a graphic artist he created many world famous album covers, painting was unfashionable, and he had to teach himself the techniques and methods by reading and looking. In his neat attic studio there are the tools of the Old Masters he reveres—fine sable brushes, a great curving palette and even a mahl stick, constantly in use. There are also stacks of small sketchbooks filled with ideas for paintings. He has been a natural draughtsman since childhood, and now particularly loves to draw on the train from Sussex up to London. Later he projects the upsized drawings with a epidiascope to see how they might work as paintings.
It is easy to cite George’s influences. The joy he takes in his regular visits to the National Gallery, where he drops in for half an hour and stays for two, leaves traces of Bosch, Bruegel and the Dutch Golden Age and also Velasquez and Arcimboldo in his work. Leonardo and Dürer are there and so too are Gustave Doré and the Symbolist Arnold Böcklin’s mysterious Toteninsel, the Island of the Dead. There are kinships with contemporary painters such as the Norwegian Odd Nerdrum and the Swiss H R Giger. Surprisingly, given that his characters could almost be dressed for a Carnival, he has never been to Venice. Art historians love ‘isms’, but for all his leanings to Symbolism and Surrealism, George cannot be pinned down like that. He is his own man with his own vision.
Huon Mallalieu – author and arts correspondent for Country Life 2019