William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


The Artist


London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull: Horses - Development of a Theme, 22nd June - 20th July 2001, cat. no.11, illustrated (another cast)

Wakefield, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, William Turnbull, Retrospective 1946-2003, cat no.23, illus colour, another cast with a green patina


Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, cat. no.304, illustrated p.191 (another cast)


William Turnbull’s second recorded sculpture was Horse, 1946, made whilst he was still a student at the Slade. Amanda Davidson describes this and another early work:

‘Turnbull built plaster on top of a metal armature to make Horse, 1946. This piece forms a horse's head from a series of interlocking planes, both three-dimensional, flattened and frontal, exploring Cubist ideas of simplifying subjects to elemental shapes in a sculptural form. It was originally marked with fine lines and painted yellow; later it was cast in bronze. Mask, 1946, was cement, with its surface covered with designs in string. It also appears to represent a horse's head, but again is flat and frontal, using the conventions of masks to present a three-dimensional impression in a two-dimensional manner in sculpture.’ 1

At that time, Turnbull was a regular visitor to the British Museum, which was, and remains, only a few streets away from the art school. The horse's strong profile and arched neck is typical of classical Greek sculptures in the collection, such as Fragments of Colossal Horses from the Quadriga of the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, 350 B.C. and The Horse of Selene, c.438-2 B.C., a fragment from the Parthenon.

By the time Turnbull came to make his next Horse in 1950 (collection Tate Gallery, London), he was living in Paris. Keen to distance himself from the influence of Cubism, which he saw as a ready-made language, his sculptures in Paris were playful, absurdist works, like drawings in space. These were made from metal armatures, which were roughly covered plaster and then cast in bronze. Horse, 1950, describes an entire horse, albeit with details radically reduced, stood directly on the ground. The straddled legs suggest that it might be based on a toy horse, toys and games being a preoccupation of Turnbull’s at this time. By referencing a toy, Turnbull suggests both movement and inaction, introducing a modern sense of pathos and anxiety into this classical subject.

In 1954, Turnbull made another Horse (also collection Tate Gallery, London), a bronze which, like his 1946 sculpture, focused solely on the horse's head and curving neck, which balance at two points on the ground. The plaster maquette from which the bronze was cast was, once again, a solid, bulky form, roughly modelled and with texture combed into the surface. The overall form retains some of the qualities of the earlier ‘Cubist’ work, in that we are shown both a flattened frontal view of the horse’s head and simultaneously a side-on view of the mane. This simplified, primitive approach to form can be found in both early African wood carvings and Ancient Greek masks. Inspired by the British Museum's Horse of Selene, Turnbull did not feel it necessary to sculpt the entire body of the horse. He noted how in African sculpture ‘the part can represent the whole…you can feel the whole animal is in that one component’, in these works, ‘you didn’t feel the rest of the horse is missing’. 2

Aside from Pegasus, also made in 1954, an abstracted image of the mythical winged horse, there are no further works on this subject until Turnbull revived the theme in the late 1980s. All the sculptures from 1987 onwards, focus on the horse’s head and neck, and are derived from the basic form of Horse, 1954. In the first of the later works, Horse 1, 2 and 3 and 5 (1987), the horse’s eyes have become enlarged holes which go right through the flat plane of the face. The manes are flattened out, except in Horse 3, where the curve of the neck is reduced to a line in space. In 1988-9 and 1990, Turnbull produced two large (outdoor) bronzes, measuring around 3 metres in height, and he made a further large version measuring just under 2 metres in 1999. In 1994 and 1995 there are variations which show the head extending over the side of a plinth and in 2000 one in which the head is suspended off the ground. Head 2 and Head 3 (2000) are the very last examples, which show the horse’s head reduced to its most abstract and linear form.

Turnbull had a lifelong interest in the description of movement and balance within a sculptural language. Horse 3, has this sense of a balancing form and it is remarkable how the coiled up energy and power in the horse’s neck is still present in this radically reduced form.

Amanda Davidson notes the similarity of these works to adzes, stone age tools made for carving wood, in which the axe head is perpendicular to the curving handle. Turnbull himself had a modern version of this tool in his studio, so its form would have been very familiar to him. That a sculptor would be attracted to tool forms is not surprising, but it may also refer to the role of the horse as a servant (tool) of man. Aside from some very early sculptures of fishes and insects, the horse is the only animal that Turnbull has taken as a subject. The magnificent power of the animal and its associations with war, history and mythology, make it a natural choice for a sculptor whose work is both timeless and at the same time astonishingly modern.

1. Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, 2005, p12
2. Ibid p29