Published  14/11/2005

The Sculpture of William Turnbull – book review

The Sculpture of William Turnbull – book review

William Turnbull remains an important survivor of the British generation of sculptors whose early career was, for the most part, interrupted by war service. In his case, this episode helped to broaden his human and cultural experience. As an RAF flying boat pilot he served mainly on Catalinas, in several countries. Turnbull's early artistic training was at Dundee, where he grew up, and later at the Slade.

Turnbull was soon strongly influenced by the new American direction in painting, by the large 'tyrannical absoluteness 'of Barnett Newman. As John Russell said (Private View, 1965):

A majestic act of homage to the New York School was paid by Turnbull at the time. Turnbull's subsequent larger works of sculpture remained within the realm of the "implacable event", where ritual, not display, is its function in terms of society; it is less an object of art than an instrument of ceremonies as yet unformulated ... As a sense of an equilibrium delicately judged and firmly maintained.

However, this was not, by contrast, as Herbert Read was to formulate the work, referring to it as 'an architecture of trauma'.

Amanda A Davidson has produced a scholarly monograph here, which charts Turnbull's key transitions within sculpture. But, it would have been in no way detrimental to the artist's record to also include the surviving paintings. In Turnbull's own key Notes on Sculpture, he himself made clear that it was his primary experience as a painter that formulated a series of important tenets, which equally influenced conclusions in his sculpture. These Notes were published in Studio International, Vol. 196, No. 905, in November 1968 (pp 198-199). Such statements emphasised the 'preservation of the unity of the white canvas' but as a 'positive experience', and that 'colour painting is not colourful painting' but colour as a means of avoiding duality (figure-field ambiguity) and the 'elimination of sculptural forms from painting have involved it with another sculptural quality ... physical scale directly related to the observer'. From these precepts emerged the outstanding evolution of Turnbull, the sculptor as he is known, defining a realm in no way divorced from painting.

The book maps thoroughly Turnbull's sculptures, a remarkable range of dedicated work. It is interesting to learn that, as late as 1993, he exhibited new paintings and retained publicly his ongoing commitment to paint. As Davidson says, 'An autonomous aspect of his oeuvre lay there, complementing and informing his sculpture'. So, it is all the more to be regretted that the reader is unable to also experience Turnbull's paintings, which are excluded from this otherwise complete monograph.

Michael Spens

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