William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


The Artist

Waddington Galleries, London

Private Collection, UK


London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, William Turnbull: New Sculpture and Paintings, 25 September-2 November 1957, cat no.23, illus b/w

London, Tate Gallery, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, 15 August-7 October 1973, cat no.29, illus b/w

London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull, 28 October-21 November 1987, cat no.6, illus colour

Wakefield, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, William Turnbull, Retrospective 1946-2003, 14 May-9 October 2005

London, Tate Gallery, William Turnbull, 14 June-26 November 2006, cat no.29, illus b/w

London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull, Sculpture and Paintings 1946-1962, 31 January-24 February 2007, cat no.4, illus colour

Bakewell, Chatsworth House, William Turnbull, 10 March-30 June 2013, cat no.47, illus colour p45


Theo Crosby (ed.), Uppercase 4, Whitefriars, London, 1960, illus b/w, unpaginated, as Permutation Sculpture

Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, Henry Moore Foundation / Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, cat no.67, illus b/w p98



Between 1955 and 1957 William Turnbull produced a series of five sculptures with the title Idol. Each was derived from a standing female figure, faced forward, with hands pressed to her sides, however, amongst this group Turnbull employed varying degrees of abstraction. Idols 1 and 2 are more obviously figurative, 3 and 5 tend towards the geometric and 4 is notably smoothed out.

In Idol 2, we see how Turnbull has impressed corrugated cardboard into the wet plaster, creating a ribbed texture which delineates the breasts, hair and legs. The figure is also decorated with a series of small tattoo-like holes. Turnbull’s technique here is comparable with the methods of his friend, Eduardo Paolozzi, who, at this time, was similarly engaged in incising and impressing his plaster models prior to casting.

Richard Morphet wrote about the Idol series for Turnbull’s 1973 Tate retrospective, where all five bronzes were exhibited. Noting how these forms resemble ‘archaic spearheads or blind sentinels’ he compares Idols 1, 2 and 4, in particular, to a ‘leaf’ form 1. Morphet suggests that their inherent stillness and the flat, frontality of the figures connects them, less to Western Renaissance sculpture, than to ancient Greek and Egyptian figures.

Here the name Idol has a double meaning - referring both to pre-history and also to contemporary ‘screen idols’. This mixing of high and low references is consistent with the Independent Group’s non-hierarchical understanding of contemporary culture, where artist and viewer are bombarded by a proliferation of imagery, past and present.

Turnbull was a key member of the Independent Group and a participant in Theo Crosby’s ground-breaking I.C.A. exhibition This is Tomorrow, a collaborative show to which he contributed Sungazer, 1956. Turnbull’s totemic bronze was placed in an architectural space made from plastic, plywood, block-board and photographs. The accompanying catalogue, in effect a manifesto, presented the artists’ declarations, between collages, drawings and photographs. In Turnbull’s section it stated, ‘Within this mass produced environment the sculpture represents the imprecise yet recognisable image of the irrational and of chance; non-utilitarian yet necessary, they focus the environment and are the poetic equivalent of man […] Sculpture used to look modern, now we make objects that might have been dug up at any time in the past forty thousand years’. 2

The Tate Gallery website notes that Turnbull made the present work in cramped conditions at a time when he had not sold any work for four years. A later section of the catalogue for This is Tomorrow titled ‘TO THOSE WHO FEEL’ hints at this adversity: ‘The artist works from compulsion. Society rewards him with neglect. Yet the artist continues to record his experiences of life. His measure is TRUTH: to himself, to the eternal and to the present. Each artist sees differently. Each records a fragment of the substance of reality. For those who feel, the soul vibrates to art’s experience’.3

1 Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1973, pp34-35
2 This is Tomorrow, Whitechapel Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1956, Part One, unpaginated
3 Ibid, Part Four