William Turnbull 1922-2012

One of the most authoritative, expressive and subtle artists of his generation

From Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti to Anthony Caro and David Smith, from the typical modernist immersion in tribal art and idols to minimalism, William Turnbull experienced and expressed it all, yet he absorbed the influences and remade them, so that the work he produced could never be mistaken for anything but his. As ill fortune had it, this generation was the one whose start in life was delayed for several years by the second world war. But when Turnbull did begin, he seemed to spring fully formed into life as an artist: he counted Horse, a bronze of 1946, as a canonical work.


He was born in Dundee, the son of a shipyard engineer, and left school at 15 because the Depression left his family broke, if not actually destitute. He worked as a laborer, but went to evening classes in art, where one of his teachers, Fred Mould, was an illustrator with the publishers DC Thomson, home of the Beano and Dandy, as well as the Sunday Post and other assorted newspapers and magazines. Mould was impressed by Turnbull's potential and put him on the DC Thomson payroll.


Whatever else Turnbull learned there, while sharpening pencils and filling inkwells, the most useful aspect was meeting other cartoonists and illustrators, many of whom were deeply interested in fine art and urged him to aim for a place at what they saw as the finest art school in Britain, the Slade, in London. This would have to wait, because in 1941 Turnbull joined the RAF and served as a pilot in Canada, India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). After the war, he hastily assembled a portfolio and with it won his place at the Slade in 1946. Within the first few days there, his future was determined.


He wandered into the sculpture department, felt instantly at home, as though he was back in the busy shipyard workshops he had visited when his father was still in a job, and, in effect, signed up as a sculptor for life. Apart from reading art books as a boy, he had devoured American comics sent to him by relatives living in the US, and this, along with the training at Thomson, left him with an appreciation of art that was utterly non-hierarchical. In his second year at college, Turnbull visited Italy, where the grace of the Raphaels, Ghirlandaios and Leonardos impressed him, but left him cold. He preferred what were still called the "primitives", the muralists and altar panelists of the 14th and 15th centuries up to Piero della Francesca, and the earlier Greek art of the pre-classical period.


At the Slade, he made friends with his fellow Scot Eduardo Paolozzi. The two discovered their mutual enjoyment of comic book images – Paolozzi was probably the first artist to employ them directly in his work – and, from Paolozzi, Turnbull learned the direct approach to sculpture, modelling in cement or in wet plaster around an armature, neither of them methods encouraged by the Slade at that time. Turnbull's uncle in Dundee was a coppersmith, and from him he learned to solder together copper sheets and rods. One of his sculptures of this period, Game (1949), consisted of rods which could be moved and slotted in a fresh configuration into different holes on a flat platform.


In 1948, without completing the Slade course, he arranged to pick up his grant in Paris (to satisfy bureaucracy, he signed up at an art course that he never attended) and went to live there for two years. Art was not the glamorous focus of the media in those days, even in Paris, the capital of the art world, and a young artist had merely to knock on the studio door of a master to gain admission, which is how Turnbull became a friend of Giacometti. His little bronze Mobile Stabile (1949), now in the Tate, is one of the best of his works unequivocally made under the influence of Giacometti's prewar surrealist sculptures of tiny figures moving around oblivious of each other on small bronze platforms.


In 1950 he exhibited at the fast rising Galerie Maeght, but when his Slade grant ran out in October that year Turnbull returned to Britain, just in time to join the team of young radical artists, including Paolozzi, Patrick Heron and Alan Davie, who were teaching part time at the Central School of Art in London on a course devised on the basis of the Bauhaus method.


In Paris, Paolozzi and Turnbull had met the critic David Sylvester who, back in London, fixed a show for them at the Hanover Gallery, then the liveliest in London. In 1952, Herbert Read included Turnbull in his famous exhibition at the Venice Biennale, New Aspects of British Sculpture. In the mid-50s Turnbull moved away from his linear approach to sculpture and developed a series based on the sort of objects he had seen in ethnographic collections, including those of the British Museum. There are female figures, more like the vastly ancient fertility symbol the Venus of Willendorf than the Venus de Milo; bronze heads as abstract as Brâncusi's, but heavily scored; totems and standing figures.


Turnbull was painting as well as sculpting, and though some of the later abstracts look like a second-hand take on Barnett Newman, many, composed mostly of broad horizontal brush-strokes in blues, greys, ochres, reds and greens, are packed with nascent energy and survive as remarkable paintings to this day.

A Tate retrospective of 1973, stretching back to the work of his student days, confirmed Turnbull's consistency of approach through the years. He showed widely around the world (with a mini-retrospective curated by Sylvester at the Serpentine in 1995; and a major show which launched the Underground Gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2005) and his work is in many of the great public collections. 


Michael McNay for The Guardian