William Turnbull was born in Dundee in 1922. He begain his artistic career painting film posters and then as a commercial illustrator, whilst also taking classes in landscape painting at Dundee University. After World War II, during which he served in the RAF, Turnbull briefly studied at the Slade School of Fine Art between 1946 and 1948 before moving to Paris where he met Eduardo Paolozzi. This led to his association with the Independent Group at the ICA in the 1950s which included Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and the critic David Slyvester amongst others, and his inclusion in the 1952 Young Sculptors exhibition at the ICA.
Turnbull's early sculpture included works in traditional materials of bronze, stone and wood often evoking totemic columns or ancient rock formations with a delicate, often playfully unstable, balance between powerful stillness and movement. By the 1960s, however, Turnbull was focusing primarily upon jagged diagonal metallic vertiginous sculptures with a tendency towards seriality, evoking the practice of American Minimalist sculpture but utilising the colours of American Colour Field Painting, the final manifestation of Abstract Expressionism. The final period of his career from the 1970s until his death in 2012 saw a return primarily to abstract, stylised bronze figurines and busts, focusing on the individual patterns of surface and colour in each intimately sized work.