Seeing the unknowable: In the artist’s studio with George Underwood

  • Hair Piece, George Underwood
  • Hat Trick, George Underwood
  • On a Mission, George Underwood
  • Riding with a Flower, George Underwood
  • Riding with Stripes, George Underwood
  • The Ensemble, George Underwood

Ensconced in his Buxted studio, visionary artist George Underwood is busy painting. Some of these new works will be displayed in his next major exhibition, hosted at Stow on the Wold’s Fosse Gallery in October.

Journalists and acquaintances have always been intrigued by his eventful, lifelong friendship with David Bowie - but, as Underwoods captivating paintings demonstrate, theres more to this story.

You stare through a window, into another world. Clad in finery, its inhabitants peer back at you, their expressions inscrutable: armoured warriors, courtesans, figures in extravagant headdresses.

You sense concealed knowledge here, and secret musings, but cannot grasp the shape of them. It’s because you are the alien, here in this strange kingdom of the soulful and the solemn. You can only behold, and wonder…

…Well, that’s something of what I feel when I see the works of George Underwood, anyway. This compelling world that Underwood conjures up is not excessively fantastical or surreal - not in a sensational way, at least - but it does seem to exist somewhere beyond, in a place steeped in myth and allegory. There’s melancholy in the air, perhaps. A sense of stillness. Or maybe that’s just what I see.

***

George and his wife Birgit have made their home in the leafy village of Buxted, situated in the considerably less mysterious realm of East Sussex. And a lovely home it is, too - all white walls and old wood, surrounded with rolling gardens of vivacious green (with what remains of bomb shelter somewhere on the premises, I’m told).

In the upstairs studio, the latest paintings are revealed: these are the works that will in coming months be transported for display in Stow on the Wold. Some complete, others in the process of emerging. Some existing only - for now - in the embryonic form of small concept sketches.

‘I’d like [the paintings] to have a spiritual feel about them,’ reflects George, as we browse. ‘About the faces. As though they’re thinking about something that is perhaps a bit otherworldly.’

A bit otherworldly. George started making a name for himself when the otherworldly rose up and seized popular culture - a time when The Beatles and T.Rex and all the other English visionaries were redefining the visual/auditory landscape. And, interestingly, George was for a time positioned as one of those hunky new music idols, leaving an art school education to record and release an album under the dashing stage name of Calvin James. (He also released a record with David Bowie, but more on that later).

‘The band might have taken off - but it didn’t,’ laughs George. ‘Music ended up being left behind, as I went back into college - and then out into the wide world.’

Touting his post-art school portfolio around, George had an early break when he showed some of his ‘more shocking, horrific’ work to an art agency, who set him up illustrating the covers for two horror novels.

‘Coming straight from art college, it wasn’t a bad result. I was proud that I’d had these printed items in such a short time.’

He remembers how his mother warned him about giving up a steady job when he made the move into freelancing. ‘Well, she was right - in one way. It was a dive into the unknown,’ George concedes. ‘But I never looked back. I did job after job. A lot of rubbish for money, which is what happens when you have to pay the rent.

‘Some things I liked, some things I didn’t. When you’re an illustrator, you’re solving somebody else’s problems - but I thought that one day, I’d be solving my own…’

And so he went on illustrating, even opening his own studio, Main Artery, while developing his painting in his spare time. Slowly beginning to experiment with oils, George found in them a new form of expression.

Now, countless exhibitions and RA Summer Show appearances later, he’s rather successfully gone from representing the work of others to staking out his own distinctive territory. Solving his own problems, indeed.

***

George might have sidelined his own musical aspirations, but there was one way in which he remained very much connected with the industry: album artwork. George’s impressive portfolio of album art includes covers for T. Rex, Mott the Hoople and Procol Harum - and, of course, his old chum, David Bowie. (The albums George covered being David Bowie, Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars).

David and George had been firm friends since they’d met at the age of nine, enrolling for St Mary’s boy scouts in Bromley; performed their first concert together, in fact, ‘around a campfire.’ (They would play together in various groups and later record a single as The King Bees).

‘The thing with David is that I’d been doing work for him for ages,’ George says. ‘He’d got me to interpret, if you like, some of his ideas in two dimensional form. I felt happy working with him. He was easy to get on with - very much in control of what he wanted. He’d say what he [ was after] and, hopefully, I’d come up with the goods…

‘David always said to me: youre not an illustrator - youre a painter. Thats what you should strive to be…’

Only in the course of my interview research had I realised that it was in fact George who’d been responsible for David Bowie’s distinctive eye. At the age of fifteen, George punched Bowie - then merely schoolboy David Jones - in a fight over a girl, accidently causing Bowie’s aniscoria (unequal size of the pupils). The unintended damage could not be repaired, though later, of course, these unusual eyes served as part of the ascendant superstar’s otherworldly allure.

‘I had a feeling you might ask me about that,’ George says, with a rueful smile. It’s obviously a story he’s been made to retell ad infinitum - even more so, perhaps, in the days since Bowie’s unexpected death in January 2016.

‘He did say I’d done him a favour, in giving him this distinctive look. I only did it to show him how I felt - and then it was all over. I had no idea it was going to be this dramatic experience. It’ll be on my gravestone if I’m not careful…’

Reporters have often headlined the enduring friendship between the pair, whenever George has been filmed or written about. It’s all too easy to understand why - Bowie’s an icon, after all. But it’s also easy to imagine that this fixation might be pretty tiring for George. Especially after the loss of his friend.

So one doesn’t want to ask too many prying questions, but in talking about George’s life and career there are, inevitably, fascinating overlaps - such as when George and Birgit accompanied Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust tour, which I cannot resist asking about.

‘I’d only been married a year,’ George says. ‘It was…difficult to describe. Incredible is one word I could use. [Or] Amazing. It was a travelling circus really, in a nice way. The red carpet was laid out for David wherever he went, even though he wasn’t very well known. It was a very clever ploy by management - to make him more famous then he actually was - and it worked.

‘Some of the concerts he gave, when we went to Cleveland or somewhere like that, or Seattle - the kids there had never seen anything like that. He left a big impression on them - especially [as it was] 1972.’ George goes on. ‘The music business was getting a bit dull. It needed someone like him to liven it up.’

Over a year after Bowie’s death, the tributes continue. I’ve seen the mural in Brixton, still garlanded with flowers, handwritten messages - the outpourings of loss and affection from those he had touched. But George was not only present at some of those seminal moments; he grew up alongside David Jones. Played music with him. Locked horns with him.

The reporters have come, asked their questions, and George has answered.

What more can I say?

***

In search of new perspectives on George’s art, I ask after his influences.

The world of George Underwood bears traces of the (rather more unsettling) Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum, and the Viennese fantastic realists - even Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin, whose Island of the Dead paintings are the last word in haunting landscapes. But, like all true artists, he’s learned from them and broken away, made something unique.

During my visit, I get the impression that George is more comfortable discussing the work of the ‘outliers and outsiders’ he admires than putting labels on his own. And why would he spoil the technique of suggestion - of allowing the mind of the beholder to fill in its own blanks?

It’s just that his figures seem so uncannily alive that one can’t help but reach for for narratives - even if thinking in such a cloddish, literal way dulls the pictures’ raw imaginative power. I can’t help it: I want to read ‘the story’ behind the images - just as George’s illustrations once tempted readers to pull tales of terror and fantasy and adventure from the shelves. But they remain out of reach.

Over coffee, I ask George if he liked the science fiction tales he once illustrated.

‘I always liked Ray Bradbury,’ he replies, and enthusiastically tells a (greatly abridged) version of a story ‘about the spiders from Mars,’ where astronauts are devoured by alien spiders after their scanning technology mistakenly categorises said spiders as friendly. (In fact, they simply have a fond appreciation for human flesh).

Funny thing is, the spider story loses none of its power for being, in George’s retelling, all of five or six sentences long. In fact, it’s made all the more interesting because of - not in spite of - the gaps, the murky areas. The bits left unsaid.

See Georges Major One Man Exhibition at the Fosse Gallery in Stow on the Wold from 1st 29th October 2017.