William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


Estate of the Artist


The distinctive river motif which appeared in William Turnbull’s paintings in 1963, derived from the trip he made with his wife, Kim Lim, to East Asia in 1962-3, during which they visited Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan and Singapore. In Singapore, Turnbull was impressed by spectacular views of the jungle, seen from a plane, where a uniform expanse of trees would be suddenly interrupted by the snaking path of a river. This striking image was not new to the artist however, as it recalled his experiences as a pilot in the war, some twenty years before.

The image was not only highly reminiscent of the paintings Turnbull had already been producing, but became emblematic of a certain meditative state, or existential perspective, which Turnbull was seeking to convey through his art. In the introduction to his 1998 exhibition, he reflected upon the aesthetics of flying:

‘The main thing about flying for me was the fact that the world didn’t any longer look like a Dutch landscape; it looked like an abstract painting. You looked down and you realised that so much of what one felt was true depended on where you were standing to look at it... this experience of having three different fields of movement, where you’ve got up and down and sideways...You have an extraordinary spatial feeling, and there are certain aspects of it that are very primitive...There was this sense at night where you feel you are flying away from the world, this flying into a kind of blackness.’ 1

On his return, Turnbull began a series of river paintings which occupied much of 1963. In these first paintings a field of colour - red, blue, yellow, orange and green – was bisected by a single channel of unpainted canvas, Turnbull lessening the intensity of the colour by rubbing the paint back with a cloth. Turnbull developed this motif through 1964 and into 1965; the softly defined shapes evolving into sharply defined areas of flat, vivid colour.

In 15-1965, a bright orange channel divides the painting into two ‘sides’. Turnbull’s compositions are often predicated on the coexistence of opposites – which he related to the Chinese concept of yin-yang - and here the wavering and off-centre line, disrupts the more rigid symmetry of the blue bands. Turnbull explained to Richard Morphet that he thought of all of his paintings as being about one colour - 15-1965 then, is in essence a ‘green painting’, the smaller areas of orange and blue added to intensify our understanding and experience of ‘green’.

1 The artist interviewed by Colin Renfrew for the introduction to William Turnbull, Sculpture and Painting, Waddington Galleries, London, 1998, p7