William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


The Artist

Private Collection, UK


The human head was a key subject for William Turnbull from 1950 to 1957. Here, the scratched lines, made using the wrong end of a brush, as one might draw texture in plaster, indicate that this is a sculptor’s drawing. Turnbull is unconcerned with capturing a specific likeness; instead he focuses on describing,
through mark-making, the impression of a moving, three dimensional form.
This subject can also be found in the work of Turnbull’s contemporaries Eduardo Paolozzi (Shattered Head, 1956) and Nigel Henderson (Head of a Man, 1956, both Tate Gallery Collection). All three artists had visited Paris in the late 1940s,
where they absorbed the influences of Surrealism and Art Brut. Each used the head as a means to explore interiority, marking, collaging and inscribing things unseen – the damage of war, modernity, history, past and present – onto its surface.

This drawing owes a clear debt to Alberto Giacometti – an early influence Turnbull freely acknowledged. After the war, Turnbull had won a scholarship to France, staying there from 1948–1950. In Paris he visited many well-known artists in their studios, including Brancusi and Léger. He tracked down Giacometti and visited his studio with Nigel Henderson several times. Giacometti was at this time making elongated figures on a life-size scale and also in miniature on horizontal slabs. Turnbull immediately responded to the work, making his own linear sculptures on bases, using fine wire armatures thinly covered in plaster. Soon after, both Turnbull and Giacometti were represented by the Hanover Gallery in London.
The linear nature of this drawing relates both to the sculptures Turnbull made in Paris and the more solid plaster masks he began in 1953. These masks were informed by African tribal and Greek masks, of which he stated, ‘The Mask is a marvellous example of the attempt to fix that which is maybe most continuously fleeting and mobile – the expression on a face.’ 1

1 Theo Crosby (ed.), Uppercase 4, Whitefriars, London, 1960, p8 quote from the artist