William Turnbull 1922-2012


Exchanged by the artist with John Plumb, late 1960s
Gifted by John Plumb to Private Collection

Private Collection, UK


2016, London, Piano Nobile, Aspects of Abstraction: 1952-2007, 17 May - 23 June 2016, cat. no. 7, col. ill. p. 31. 


In 1948, leaving the Slade School of Fine Art in London, William Turnbull moved to Paris. Whilst in Paris, Turnbull socialised with an ever-changing group of young artists, including fellow Scot Eduardo Paolozzi, William Gear, and Lucian Freud, and established artists alike, such as Fernand Léger, Constantin Brâncusi, and in particular Alberto Giacometti who was to prove a life-long influence. Upon his return, Turnbull participated in the seminal 'Geometry of Fear' British pavilion of young sculptors at the 1952 Venice Biennale alongside Paolozzi, Bernard Meadows, Reg Butler, and Lynn Chadwick, and was a founder member of the Independent Group from which Pop art sprung, again with Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, and Lawrence Alloway. Five years later Turnbull visited New York, striking up meaningful friendships with many exponents of Abstract Expressionism, especially Mark Rothko.

Equally brilliant as sculptor and painter, Turnbull carved an independent path through affiliation with numerous groups and movements. He was as comfortable in London as Paris and New York, synthesising through abstraction the post-war angst of the so-called 'Geometry of Fear' group, the expansive scale and vision of Abstract Expressionism, and the anti-establishment innovation of the Independent Group.

Turnbull married fellow sculptor Kim Lim in 1960 and in 1962 they travelled to her native Singapore, a visit that would prove a catalyst for Turnbull to re-imagine the visuality of his paintings. Flying over the jungle of Singapore, Turnbull saw below a "view of a thick uniform single-colour texture of abundant and luxuriant growth, broken only by a river's winding course". During World War II, Turnbull served in the RAF. He recollected "The main thing about flying for me was the fact that the world didn't any longer look like a Dutch landscape: it looked like an abstract painting…You have an extraordinary spatial feeling, and there are also certain aspects of it that are very primitive…[there was] an enormous sense of exhilaration." The view from an aeroplane revealed for Turnbull a new, profoundly modernist way of seeing, an aesthetic of the world distilled through abstraction.

Turnbull returned to London in 1963, and introduced into his subsequent paintings the idiomatic undulating, hazy vertical line, as evidenced in the present work. Delicately thin layers of rose-pink paint cover the narrow canvas divided by a central perpendicular band of dove-grey. From 1963, Turnbull applied many thin layers of paint to the canvas, rubbing each individual coating with rags to achieve total unity between the paint and the surface, entirely saturating the canvas with colour. In conversation with Colin Renfrew, Turnbull explained: "What matters is the painting as an object, not the painting as an illusion…The painting itself is a shape, and I modify this to create a dynamic between the painting as object and as surface experience."

Eliminating internal relationships from his paintings, Turnbull adjusted the focus to "a dialogue…between the artist and his material…it is a live performance", and an experiential connection of viewer to painting. In 11-1964, amongst Turnbull's most lyrical and romantic 1960s paintings, the viewer is drawn in by effervescent tones of rosy pink. The blush induces repose but also joy: a phenomenological and holistic experience involving the body, the psyche, and the mind.