William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


The Artist


Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull, Beyond Time, 9 June- 3 July 2010, cat no.3, original plaster version, illus b/w p18


Richard Morphet, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 1973, p23, original plaster version illus b/w fig.3
Patrick Elliott, ‘William Turnbull: A Consistent Way of Thinking’, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Paintings, David Sylvester, Merrell
Holberton Publishers in association with Serpentine Gallery,
London, 1995, p18
Ann Elliott, Sculpture at Goodwood I, The Hat Hill, Sculpture Foundation, Goodwood, 1995
Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore  Foundation in association with Lund Humphries,
London, 2005, cat no.8, pp21 & 80, original plaster version illus b/w p15 fig.4


The original plaster version of this mobile was made in Turnbull's studio in Paris, where he lived for two formative years between 1948 and 1950. Turnbull had been inspired to move to Paris by his friend Eduardo Paolozzi, so much so that before completing his final year at the Slade he requested a transfer to complete his studies at the Grande Chaumière Art School in Montparnasse in autumn, 1948. Turnbull wished to 'escape the prevailing post-war Neo-Romanticism'[1] of British art at the time, which he found backward looking and parochial. During his time in Paris, he sought out the important avant-garde artists of the day, most significantly meeting with both Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-66).

Following his visits to Giacometti, Turnbull began to produce stick-like linear works made from fine wire armatures covered in plaster and grounded to a base, such as Playground, 1949, Game, 1949 and Playground Game, 1949. The possibilities of games and play were a major theme of Turnbull's work in Paris. Game, 1949 is a collection of pin-like uprights that can be arranged in any permutation in the base, introducing an element of chance into the final work. Games and visits to the various museums, galleries and aquariums of Paris, directly inspired his art. He became particularly interested in movement as he explains:

'I was very involved in the random movement of pin-ball machines, billiards (which I played a lot) and ball games of this sort; and the predictable movement of machines (in the Science Museum). Movements in different planes at different speeds. I loved acquariums. Fish in tanks hanging in space and moving in shoals. The movement of lobsters. I became quite expert with a Diablo. I was obsessed with things in a state of balance'[2]

Turnbull's interest in movement, must also stem from his experience of aerial flight. He saw active service during the war as a pilot in the RAF, which at such a young age, must have been a formative and unusual aesthetic experience. Later in his career, journeys made in light aircraft over East Asia inspired Turnbull to make a whole series of abstract colourfield paintings.

Initially Turnbull explored this interest in movement by making kinetic pieces that moved as they were observed. He made a large red weather vane for Roland Penrose, followed by two mobiles based on the movement of fish he had observed in aquariums, Hanging Sculpture, 1949 is the second of these. These same simplified fishes are later found anchored to a base in Aquarium, 1949. Early works by American artist Alexander Calder allude to the same phenomena for example Starfish, 1936 and Lobster Trap and Fish Tail, 1939. In Britain, Lyn Chadwick made a number of important mobiles between 1947 and 1954.

Movement and balance became two of the most important themes in Turnbull's sculptural practice. His interest in conveying the impression of movement also separated him from the artistic practice of Giacometti and Paolozzi.

Edited extracts from Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, 2005, pp14-18

[1] William Turnbull, in Retrospective Statements, The Independent Group:Post-War Britain and the Aesthtics of Plenty, exhibition catalogue, ed. David Robbins, Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 1990, p195

[2] William Turnbull, letter to the Tate Gallery 7 June 1967, in Richard Morphet, Commentary, Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue,1973, p26