William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


Estate of the Artist


London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull, 1991, cat no.13, p31, illus, another cast

London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull, 1998, cat no.5, illus colour, p25, another cast


Amanda Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, Henry Moore Foundation & Lund Humphries, Hertfordshire, 2005, p72, cat no.271, illus, b/w p177


At the end of the 1970s, after almost a decade engaged with minimalist sculpture, William Turnbull returned to the figurative, organic forms which had characterised his early career. He began by making numerous small works, modelled in clay, and these motifs then developed into a wide range of human-scale and larger idols and totemic forms which were cast in bronze.

These large bronzes did however retain some vestiges of both Turnbull’s 1960s minimalism and his abstract paintings. While the textured surface and primitive form of Blade Venus 5, might at first consideration, seem the antithesis of painted steel sculptures, such as the Tate Gallery’s No.7, 1965. In fact, the tall, slim forms of the Blade Venus series, have a markedly similar physical presence when experienced first-hand. Equally, Turnbull’s post-1979 sculptures, show a preoccupation with surface detail and colour, which traces back to an intensive period of colour-field painting in the early 1960s. His later bronzes typically have smoother forms than those from the 1950s, but these were then inscribed with fine lines and tattoo-like marks - a technique more aligned with drawing than sculpting. In the 1980s and 1990s, Turnbull experimented far more widely with the coloured finishes he could achieve at the foundry. By closely overseeing the production of his bronzes, each work in an edition could have its own unique patination - with colours ranging from warm browns and green-blacks (as we see here), through to burnt oranges and blue-greys.

In the catalogue raisonné of Turnbull’s sculpture, which was written in close collaboration with the artist, Amanda Davidson, explains the origins of the Blade Venus series:

'The idea of metamorphosis in Turnbull's work is as its most intense in the Blade Venus series. These large sculptures suggest the shapes of Chinese knives, Japanese Samurai swords, pens, paintbrushes, leaves and goddess figures in one elegant, slightly curved form. Their form and inspiration relate them to the Zen paintings that inspired Turnbull and to the calligraphic paintings, drawings and reliefs that he produced in the 1950s. Like a single gesture, with a wide and a thin section, they combine all of the breadth of the front view with the slenderness of the side view in one perception. Part of their ambiguity and their dynamic presence stems from the spectators' simultaneous ability to see both the wide element and the narrow section as the handle or the blade or tip of the tool.
Although they are absolutely still they are also balanced on their sharpest point, poised to act.'1

It’s clear that the artist enjoys the multiplicity of readings suggested by this form. It is well- documented that Turnbull, who lived most of life in London, studied and borrowed from the Egyptian and Cycladic artefacts in the British Museum and the Ashmolean in Oxford. But the shapes of some of his most exquisite works were, equally, inspired by the kind of prosaic objects his sons left lying around the house, in this case their marital arts knives, and in another work, Ancestral Figure, 1988, their skateboards. Clearly Turnbull did not discriminate between high and low forms, borrowing from popular culture as readily as from classical sources. The titles for many of his totemic figures - Queen, Venus, Aphrodite, War Goddess - refer to powerful, archetypal, and mostly female characters. This mixing of contemporary and ancient forms is quite conscious and, for Turnbull, these figures exist somewhere beyond, or outside of, current time.

The series as a whole comprises six realised works: Blade Venus I, (h. 97.8 cm); Blade Venus 2, (h. 120 cm); Blade Venus 3, (h. 141 cm); Blade Venus 4, (h. 165 cm) and Blade Venus 5, (h. 216 cm), all 1989 and made in editions of 6 plus 1 AC; and then Large Blade Venus, 1990 (h. 317.5 cm), made in an edition of 5 plus 1 AC. It is typical of Turnbull’s later work that he should produce a sequence of sculptures, (just as he would paintings), in which subtle differences in form, especially in weight and balance, are allowed to emerge as the scale increases. Blade Venus 3 for example is notably elongated, the overall silhouette more wobbly, (almost calligraphic), and it leans over more than the other versions. Blade Venus 4 is thicker and stands the most upright, and so naturally its more structurally robust shape became the basis for the monumental, outdoor version produced the following year.

What is harder to appreciate from reproductions is how, by changing the scale of these sculptures, Turnbull is able to manipulate the viewer’s experience of the same basic form. Whether a figure is smaller than one’s own body, around the same size, or overwhelmingly larger, is paramount when standing directly in front of the work, especially when the work suggests some kind of animal or human presence. Turnbull was very aware of this physical confrontation and many of his sculptures are deliberately scaled just smaller, or a little larger than, human-size to maximise this effect. Blade Venus 5, the tallest of the group of five, looms elegantly over the viewer but remains within a human scale, unlike the outdoor version, which has a quite different physical presence which seems more connected to the surrounding landscape and architecture than to the viewer.

As suggested earlier, there is a large degree of variation in the patination of the bronzes, both across the Blade Venus series and within each edition. Those familiar with his work often remark on how different this colour variation can be, and how the change in surface colour can affect one’s understanding of the object as a whole. The same cast reads quite differently according to the tone of the bronze (light/dark), the colour temperature, and how mottled the colour is. Some of Turnbull’s bronzes are almost brick red with little colour variation, others are a speckled mixture of blue/green/brown and as a result, both the surface detail and the object’s radiance are greatly affected.

Large Blade Venus is in the collection of the Tate Gallery, London, and in 2006 the Art Fund purchased another edition for the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. A further, privately owned edition of Large Blade Venus is permanently installed in the foyer of One Canada Square, Canary Wharf. Outdoor exhibitions at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (2005) and Chatsworth House (2013) have shown William Turnbull’s sculptures in a new light. In both, Turnbull’s large-scale bronzes were spaced far apart, against a backdrop of spectacular English countryside, the scale, colour and sheer presence of the individual works newly activated by their expansive, natural surroundings. More recently, in 2016, the Estate’s cast of Large Blade Venus was included in the exhibition Alberto Giacometti: Man in a Raincoat at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. This exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Giacometti’s death and included a small group of British artists who had come into contact with the artist in London and Paris.

1 Amanda Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, Henry Moore Foundation & Lund Humphries, Herfordshire, 2005, pp72-73