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The Estate of the Artist


Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, Henry Moore Foundation / Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, cat no.190, illus b/w p148


William Turnbull was awarded a major retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1973. For the artist it marked something of an end-point, provoking a crisis in direction. This was an understandable reaction to both the preparation required for the show and the inevitable critical interest which accompanied it, especially as Turnbull was only 51 years old. His solution was to begin to work figuratively again, modelling with air-drying clay on a very small scale. Amanda Davidson describes Turnbull making hundreds of little figures, some resembling ‘fertility figurines’, others like ‘pre-historic tools’. 1 ‘I felt up to here with my own sculpture and had a tremendous drive to start at the beginning again instead of adding on and developing pieces. So I changed the scale completely and started doing very small things. I was trying to do things as if I wasn’t thinking. Of course it’s a total illusion - you find it all comes out like you in the end’ 2 It was a return to his beginnings and a major stylistic break with the large-scale, minimalist sculptures which had preoccupied him in the 1960s. However it was not until 1979, that Turnbull began to cast some of his clay experiments in bronze and then in only relatively small numbers. In the catalogue raisonné we see illustrated, side by side, the ten little bronzes Turnbull elected to cast in 1979. It’s a fascinating cross-section of motifs, which prefigure many of the forms which would preoccupy the rest of his career - the paddle shape, flattened torso and arrowhead are all present, emerging as if all at once, from what was, in fact, an extended period of experimentation. Furthermore, Turnbull had first ‘found’ a number of these forms in the mid-1950s, so this series might more accurately be considered a definitive restatement of his core forms. Metamorphosis I presents an intriguing figure. From the front the form is wide and curvy, the pert breasts and gently rounded belly suggestive of a fertile female body. From the side however, the form is very thin, offering an entirely different bodily presence within the same figure. The undulating surface has evidently been modelled by hand and this adds to the sensuous nature of the form. As one would expect of Turnbull, the patination of the bronzes varies across the edition, here it is a beautiful mottled sea green, as one might find in ancient Greek and Egyptian artifacts. As their titles suggest, Metamorphosis 1, Arrowhead Torso and Small Venus, two other small bronzes from this 1979 group, each inform the series of bronzes titled, Metamorphic Venus, the first of which appears in 1981 (Amanda Davidson cat no.206, h.52.4 cm), and which culminates in Large Metamorphic Venus in 1983 (cat no. 223, h 152.4 cm). 1 Amanda Davidson p62 2 Conversation with Clare Lilley, February, 2005, for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibition guide.