Details & Cataloguing

Modern & Post-War British Art


William Turnbull
stamped twice with monogram and dated 62
bronze and rosewood
height: 195.5cm.; 77in.
Executed in 1962, the present work is unique.
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Private Collection
Their sale, Sotheby's London, 7th November 1990, lot 186
New Art Centre, Roche Court
Private Collection, USA, from whom acquired by the present owner


New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Turnbull, October 1963, cat. no.4, illustrated;
London, Tate, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting Retrospective Exhibition, 15th August - 7th October 1973, cat. no.53, illustrated p.42;
London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull: Beyond Time, 9th June – 3rd July 2010, cat. no.14, illustrated p.47.


Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in Association with Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, cat. no.115, illustrated p.117.

Catalogue Note

Standing directly on the floor, at over human height, this arresting sculpture provokes a very physical response from its viewers. Characteristed by a quiet, still, balanced, vitality Lotus Totem seems to wait for a human encounter. It is by this exchange between spectator and sculpture, through space and scale, that Lotus Totem acquires meaning and starts to gain power, radiating energy outwards from its core, dominating the space it inhabits.  The piece is built up of elements of contrasting materials – rough wood and polished bronze – balanced one on top of the other.  Turnbull acquired the beautiful rosewood on a visit to a timber merchant in north London. A rare find even in those days, he bought all they had.  In Lotus Totem he has carved the log, altering its form only minimally. The material has a natural ancient warmth and betrays the original touch of the carver’s hands.  The sliced oval, which tops the work, reads as a head, as well as, a lotus flower. Turnbull was very interested in this motif.  The flower was a sacred symbol of purity and beauty in the religions of Buddhism and Hinduism respectively; while the ancient Egyptian scholars observed that in the night-time the lotus closed its flowers and sank into the water, and came up with a different association for the flower that related to rebirth and the Sun. 

As with so much of Turnbull’s work, Lotus Totem, exists in a realm beyond time, combining both the ancient and modern, and the abstract and figurative. In this work we can see the mainstream 20th Century Modernist theme of 'Primitivism' but similtaneously it seems to transend time, resonating the anicent. Turnbull was interested in prehistoric art, seeking inspiration in ethnographic collections, including at the British Museum. He believed that something 3,000 years old can look more modern than something made yesterday.  He also had a great respect of the Modern masters.  While in Paris in the late 1940s, Turnbull introduced himself to the notoriously reclusive Constantin Brancusi, discovering the older man's address and turning up on his doorstep unannounced. After a dangerous pause, a stony-faced Brancusi had led the young Scot to his studio and left him there. Half an hour later his host came back, opened the door and asked him to leave.  For all its brevity, the meeting was critical for Turnbull. If his sculpture of the early 1950s showed an exposure to Giacometti and Jean Dubuffet's art brut, the stacked works such as Lotus Totem which he made throughout the 1960s are strongly Brancusian.  

Turnbull had established a reputation in America as early as 1955, when he was introduced to the collector Donald Blinken – later chairman of the Rothko Foundation – who immediately became both a patron and advocate of Turnbull’s work.  When Turnbull travelled to New York in 1957, Blinken introduced him to a number of the leading American artists including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman with whom he established a close relationship.  Blinken famously states that Turnbull’s sculptures were the only objects that could hold their own when placed alongside his paintings by Rothko, their simplicity and timeless, heratic beauty reflecting Rothkos own understated power.  Turnbull had his first solo show in New York at Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in 1963. The great success his works achieved is illustrated nicely in a remarkable series of paintings by David Hockney, executed in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. In the famous portrait of Betty Freeman entitled Beverley Hills Housewife and American Collectors (Fred & Marcia Weisman) (fig.1, Art Institute Chicago, 1968) we see the new American art collecting elite portrayed by Hockney in their sleek Richard-Neutra-inspired homes under the glittering Californian sun.  What is perhaps most striking about these wonderful bright, limpid paintings is the art works that their subjects pose alongside: the minimal, totemic sculptures of Turnbull and the Henry Moore seated figure.  Clearly, if you wanted to be cool and cutting-edge in 1960s L.A. you needed contemporary British Art.  

Modern & Post-War British Art