William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


The Estate of the Artist


London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull, 28 October-21 November 1987, cat no.25, illus colour p62


Cambridge, Jesus College, William Turnbull, 24 June-31 July 1990, cat no.14, illus b/w p13

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


Bakewell, Chatsworth House, William Turnbull at Chatsworth, 10 March-30 June 2013, cat no.58, illus colour pp 56 and 86, this cast


Patrick Elliott, William Turnbull: A Consistent Way of Thinking, Sculpture and Paintings, Serpentine Gallery exh. cat., 1995, p74, not illus

Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, cat no.245, illus b/w pp 69 and 170


Sculpture used to look ‘modern’; now we make objects that might have been dug up at any time in the past forty thousand years’. 1

The earliest incarnations of the present form date back to a group of bronze sculptures William Turnbull produced in the mid-1950s. In Female Figure, 1955, (Amanda Davidson, cat no.61), an almost human-sized figure stands, with arms pressed to the side, her body flat and facing forwards, with the torso widening into the beginnings of a diamond shape. The shape is further exaggerated in sculptures titled Idol 2, 3 and 4, all 1956, (cat nos. 67-69), in which the details of the figure are gradually smoothed away and the diamond form becomes more pronounced. Elements of this form re-emerge many years later, in small-scale sculptures such as Arrowhead Torso and Metamorphic Figure, both 1979, (cat no.s 192-3), which the artist cast in bronze after an extended period of experimentation producing hundreds of small-scale clay models.

In the catalogue for the Chatsworth exhibition in 2005, Claire Lilley describes Large Siren as, ‘based on the shape of a luxuriant leaf remembered from Singapore’, it ‘stands wide open in an embrace, echoing female figures from classical mythology who lure the unwary.’ 2

As in the closely related sequence of works with the title, Metamorphic Venus, produced between 1981-3, Large Siren’s flat, arrow-like shape, has notable similarities to pre-historic tool forms, the flat diamond-form of ancient Egyptian schists and Early Cycladic figurines (fig.1). Turnbull was open about the diverse influences on his work and did not differentiate between high and low sources. He was a regular visitor to the British Museum and well versed in the museum’s collection, however he readily acknowledged that other series of sculptures had been variously inspired by his son’s skateboards and martial arts knives and the hour-glass figure of Marilyn Monroe.

Amanda Davidson, observes that ‘The later idols are overt combinations of abstract figures, primitive tools, modern objects and religious statues, exploring ideas of change and metamorphosis and their relationship between the past, present and future’... ‘However, these idols are also detached and unassertive, resisting polemic and drama, inviting the viewers to invest them with whatever metaphoric symbolism they wish, rather than imposing any values upon them’. 3 This notion of symbolic flexibility was important to Turnbull and he purposefully simplified his forms in order to allow for a wider range of interpretations. Stating, ‘Ambiguity can give the image a wide frame of reference… It creates cross-reference between something that looks like an object and that looks like an image. For me, in making sculpture there is always that tension between the sculpture as object and the sculpture as image’ 4

Turnbull’s large figures have about them a sense of containment and silence, which is enhanced by their gentle symmetry. In his introduction to Turnbull’s 1996 Serpentine Gallery retrospective, David Sylvester notes the hieratic quality of these works. While this word, he explains, is ‘often used to designate any frontal, symmetrical, compact, simplified, static image with a somewhat autocratic look’, he considers instead its original meaning, as a description of something that is ‘priestly’. Noting the references in Turnbull’s work, to artefacts which were themselves often ritualistic or devotional in nature, Sylvester finds ‘a quality in some of Turnbull’s figures, which creates an expectation that, if some of them were to be placed in a simple well-lit building, it would become a temple’. 5
This particular form exists in two sizes, Large Siren which measures 161.9 m, (edition of 4 + 1 AC), and Siren, 1986, which is smaller at 101.6 m, (edition of 6 + 1 AC). In both, the front of the form is flat and smooth in texture, the surface punctured at intervals with three lines of holes – one going down the centre of the figure and two across, suggesting breasts and hips. The mottled, greeny blue patination, reinforces notions of the sea which are implied by the mythological title.

Recent exhibitions at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (2005) and Chatsworth House (2013) have shown Turnbull’s sculptures in a spectacular new light. In both exhibitions the large-scale bronzes were shown outdoors, spaced far apart, against a backdrop of lush English countryside, the scale, colour and sheer presence of these individual figures newly activated by their expansive natural surroundings.

Another bronze from this edition is in the collection of the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, acquired in 1991, with funds from the Art Fund. Turnbull was born in Dundee and also well represented in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

1 William Turnbull, ‘Statement. Group 1’, exhibition catalogue of This is Tomorrow, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1956
2 Chatsworth House exh. cat., William Turnbull at Chatsworth, 2013, p33
3 Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, p63
4 Ibid, the artist quoted, p64
5 Serpentine Gallery exh. cat., William Turnbull Paintings and Sculpture, 1995, p9