Bowie’s lifelong friend George Underwood exhibits fantastic oil paintings in Hampstead

George Underwood in his Studio

George Underwood in his Studio - Credit: Archant

The veteran artist, who played in teenage bands with Bowie and designed his album covers, exhibits his mystical oils at Catto Gallery

Hybrid Ride by George Underwood

Hybrid Ride by George Underwood - Credit: Archant

Although now in his 70s, veteran artist George Underwood remains well known for a teenage fight over a girl. In 1961, he punched his his pal David Jones in the eye while wearing a ring.

It left Jones with a distinctive dilated left pupil, but didn't wreck what became a lifelong friendship.

David went on to superstardom as David Bowie, while Underwood became a successful commercial artist whose artwork graced the covers of his albums Hunky Dory, Space Oddity and Ziggy Stardust.

But since the 1970s, Underwood has focused on painting fantastical oils which go on show at Hampstead's Catto Gallery this month.

Underwood, who lived in Well Walk from 1972 to 2001 when he moved to East Sussex, first met Bowie aged nine while enrolling in the Cubs. The pair attended Bromley Tech together, and it was Underwood who first joined a band while studying at Beckenham Art School.

"I was a bit ahead of David, I was in a band before he was, it was the blues explosion and I thought I'd have a stab at making a mark in the music business. One day I came in a bit blurry eyed after a gig and he decided to start playing the sax. He got a job in a band, I was the singer, and when I left the band, he took over."

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The friends recorded together as The King Bees, but Underwood says "It didn't go particularly well, we did Ready Steady Go but didn't get into the charts, but it was great fun. David was more interested in music than anything else, that was his passion, while I always wanted to draw. I wanted to make money so I could paint."

The son of a Bromley greengrocer, Underwood was the first in his family to take up art, but had sketched since childhood. Dali's surrealism was his first love, but his artwork testifys to influences from Durer to Bosch "with a little Renaissance coming through".

"I have been blessed with a very good imagination and used that to good advantage. At Bromley Tech we wanted to be famous, we talked about sci-fi, space, you name it whatever came into out heads, our imaginations were running wild. "My dad didn't understand about art but I was fortunate that he let me go to art college."

At school he was encouraged by art teacher Owen Frampton who became "more of a friend than a teacher". "The art group had a reputation for being slightly rebellious and fun. We had a lovely teacher whose son Peter was in the first year. As fifth years we looked down on them, but when he said his son wanted to learn guitar, he asked if I could give him lessons. I taught (future rock guitarist Peter Frampton) his first three chords. A couple of weeks later he was playing 10 times better than me!"

Writing in 2014, Bowie remembers those days: "I think George may well have unconsciously tipped me toward music. Sitting alongside him in art class convinced me (among others) that I would never achieve his fluidity of line, his sense of 'rightness' in relation to his subject. Whatever it was, I got my dad to advance me the money to buy an alto sax instead."

Of their fight, Underwood says: "When you are a teenager the opposite sex is very important. Looking back it was unimportant, but at the time, when he did the dirty of me, I wanted to show my anger."

After ditching music, he studied illustration and graphic design before working as an illustrator of fantasy and sci-fi books, then as an album sleeve artist, for T Rex, Procol Harum and Bowie.

"The 60s was a crazy and creative period," he says.

"If I had stayed in the music business I would have been a casualty. There were too many chemicals and I wasn't very good at saying no. People were trying everything for the first time, and in the arts it was out with the old, and in with the new. Doing work for David, he always knew roughly what he wanted at the finish, and he trusted me to go away, interpret that, and come back with something he was happy with. It was a good working relationship."

Today his oils reflect the influence of the Viennese School of fantastic realism, the likes of Ernst Fuchs and Rudolph Hausner. But the inspiration for his angels, giants and medieval figures spring from his own imagination. He rarely uses live models, prefering to invent his subjects and mix his genres. Bowie said of his friend's paintings: "I've always loved George's work. It's uncanny how his images inhabit their own world so completely. He breathes an icy life force into them. They do not move. They are at permanent attention as though on parade. as though subjecting themselves to our scrutiny."

Underwood says he uses his "intuition and imagination" to get what he wants.

"In the first hour I will get a feeling of what it's going to be, then it's as if it's painting itself. I am in a sort of trance. It's taken me over, and it's a question of getting the paintbrush in the right direction." He adds: "I am the luckiest person alive, to be doing something that I enjoy and sometimes get paid for."

Reflecting on his old friend, who died in 2016, he adds: "There was a good spirit between us, we had a synchronicity, the same interests. Our close friendship was inspirational, you always came away from meeting him with ideas in your head."

George Underwood exhibits at The Catto Gallery in Heath Street Hampstead from November 14 to December 2.