William Turnbull, Pegasus, 1954. Bronze, 35 x 17.5 x 29.25 in. Photo: © Prudence Cuming Associates

Contemporary Archetypes

William Turnbull: International Modern Artist, edited by Jon Wood (Lund Humphries, $89.99.)

William Turnbull: International Modern Artist, a lavishly illustrated monograph conceived by the Turnbull Studio, marks the centenary of the renowned Scottish sculptor, who was born in 1922. Following a chronological path through his career from the 1940s until his death in 2012, three overarching themes—New Objects, New Images (1946–62), The Geometries of Steel (1963–78), and Ancient and Modern (1979–early 2000s)—bring focus to his extensive output of painting and sculpture.

New Objects, New Images begins as Turnbull enters the illustration department at DC Thomson in Dundee (1939–41). This magazine publishing experience was formative, introducing the young artist to a wide variety of ideas, conversations, and books about art. From 1941 to 1946, he was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, which honed his sense of space and viewpoint. He carried these experiences with him as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London (1946–48) and as he began to develop his artistic practice in Paris. After returning to London, Turnbull taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts for 10 years, beginning in 1952. During this time, he was part of the Independent Group at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. The book fully covers Turnbull’s work during this period, much of it in bronze, ranging from spindly forms on bases to hanging sculptures, heads, and standing figures, as well as his interest in Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting.

The Geometries of Steel, which focuses on most of the 1960s and ’70s, documents how Turnbull’s sculpture shifted materially and conceptually during these years. As Sam Cornish’s essay emphasizes, the work was now about light, surface, and environment, as Turnbull became increasingly interested in the physical rather than the expressive qualities of materials. Stainless steel, sometimes painted, became his material of choice more often than not. He also used wood in sculptures such as Random (1971), which highlighted his interest in Eastern art and philosophy. This was further underlined in his 1969 design for a volume of haiku poetry by the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō.

Turnbull’s later work, from 1979 onward, embraced both Ancient and Modern, as recognized by the final theme. Masks, Venuses, sirens, and ancestral figures take on a timeless quality that enables them to be present in the moment while also reaching across time and space. As Nicholas Serota notes in his foreword, Turnbull’s “ability to engage with the archetypes of human existence while using a language that reflects and responds to the contemporary world may explain why his work was so respected by his peers and continues to provoke the interest of younger artists.” 

The value of this publication lies in its breadth and depth, and the fact that it attends to Turnbull’s painting and sculpture together. Each thematic section includes several long essays and numerous shorter texts on individual works or groups of works. Julia Kelly’s essay, for example, explores the anthropological imaginary in the sculptures of the 1980s and ’90s. Music, which was also important to Turnbull—and another aspect of his lexicon of influences that stretched across time—is also discussed in relation to his sculpture. Turnbull’s outdoor works and relationship with Yorkshire Sculpture Park, as well as his bronze foundries and patinas, also receive detailed treatment.

This generous format enables the reader to see the bigger picture while focusing in on more detailed discussions along the way. The texts are written in a variety of styles by art historians, critics, curators, and artists (including Antony Gormley, Peter Randall-Page, Sean Scully, and Emily Young)—some of whom knew Turnbull and his wife Kim Lim—which generates greater interest and understanding. More than 150 color images and 100 black and white illustrations, as well as archival photographs and letters from the studio’s archive (some never before published), accompany the texts, making this the most complete treatment of Turnbull’s work and ideas to date.