Contemporary Art

William Turnbull: The Geometry of Fear

By Sotheby's

B orn in Dundee in 1922, William Turnbull, whose work will go on display at S|2 Gallery in London on 9 October, is one of the most influential Modern British artists of the 20th century. Influenced by an array of artists he met throughout his life, including Giacometti, Brancusi, and Rothko, Turnbull's sculptural works adopt aspects of tribal art and minimalism, and draw upon a multitude of cultures. S|2 London presents several works from Turnbull's oeuvre, including the Blade Venus series and Ancestral Figure

William Turnbull 1987 Andrew Catlin/Andrew Catlin www.andrewcatlin.c


In 1946, Turnbull was accepted into the painting department at the Slade School of Fine Art, but he soon transferred to sculpture. Here he first met artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson, who shared his interest in contemporary continental modernist art. The following summer, Turnbull travelled throughout Italy and France, and moved to Paris a year later where he began to mix with some of the most influential artists of the day. He met Léger, Giacometti and Brancusi, all of whom had a significant influence on his work. He was also introduced to critic David Sylvester, who arranged an exhibition for Turnbull and Paolozzi back in London at the Hanover Gallery in 1950.

The pair would show again two years later in New Aspects of British Sculpture at the Venice Biennale, leading one of the show's selectors, Herbert Read, to coin the phrase 'the Geometry of Fear' to label the aesthetic of their work. He wrote that these 'new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance; and the more innocent the artist; the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt.'  The welded metal sculptures exhibited expressed the states of mind and emotions related to the anxieties and fears that the artists were dealing with in this post-war period. 


In 1952, Turnbull and Paolozzi took part in the first meeting of the Independent Group at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The group consisted of painters, sculptors, architects, writers and critics who wanted to challenge prevailing modernist approaches to culture. Turnbull would go on to exhibit as part of Group 1 in the landmark This is Tomorrow exhibition held at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956. The exhibition featured twelve independent exhibits that presented collaborations between architects, painters, and sculptors. Today, This is Tomorrow is considered to be the forerunner of the British Pop Art movement.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Turnbull would use a variety of different mediums to form his sculptural works. In the 1960s, he learned to weld in the foundry he created at the Central School of Art with colleague Brian Wall. Turnbull began to work with stainless steel, a medium he would continue to work with for the next eight years. Moving away from the 1960s and the sleek minimalist steel forms that had preoccupied him since, Turnbull turned back to clay. He began to create small, quickly executed figures in clay that revisited work from years before, trusting that the process of making would take the original idea to a new place. From these emerged person-sized sculptures made from plaster, then cast into bronze, that echoed the standing figures he had made during the 1950s, such as Idol 2 and Idol 4 (both 1956), now in the collection of Tate Britain.


By the end of the 1970s, following a period of experimentation with minimalism, Turnbull returned to making totemic idols. He was greatly influenced by the variety of archaic visual forms and ancient cultural traditions that he had experienced on trips with his wife and fellow artist, Kim Lim. The couple travelled widely throughout South East Asia and Europe and these journeys would come to significantly shape both of their artistic practices.

In his later work, Turnbull made more tangible connections to his points of inspiration. In the Blade Venus series, the blade shape goes undisguised and in Ancestral Figure, references to the human body are made clear. Here Turnbull is exploring metamorphosis, as he plays with the idea that art can render the prosaic object near-sacred. The heavily worked surfaces of the sculptures enhance the artist’s touch, while their clear relation to things seen in ordinary life reminds the viewer of their own power to endow impassive objects with special meaning.


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