Lot 41
  • 41

William Turnbull

80,000 - 120,000 GBP
317,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • William Turnbull
  • Large Idol
  • stamped with Artist's monogram, dated 85 and numbered 2/4
  • bronze
edition of 4


Sale, Christie's London, 25th November 1993, lot 179, where acquired by David Bowie


Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, p.166, cat. no.233, illustrated (another cast).

Catalogue Note

Standing freely in space, William Turnbull’s Large Idol of 1985 exudes an arresting meditative presence. Despite already finding success as one of the leading sculptors of Post-War British art, Turnbull abandoned sculpture in the early 1970s to focus exclusively on painting. He believed that his industrial minimalist work of the past decade had reached its natural conclusion and could not be developed further. However, Turnbull reconsidered this decision upon seeing his work showcased in a major retrospective held at the Tate in 1973. Reflecting on the recurrent themes that informed his oeuvre, he decided to redefine his earlier ideas on sculpture.

Turnbull frequently visited the British Museum during his early years at the Slade School of Fine Art to study archaic and non-classical figures, drawn to the timelessness of these sacred forms. Together with a brief period of study in Paris where he was exposed to the work of Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi, Turnbull’s focus on primordial forms and his divergence into minimalism resulted in a pared down, refined, and lighter version of his first hieratic phase of the mid-to-late-1950s. Referencing totemic sculpture and fertility idols, Large Idol belongs to Turnbull’s second exploration of the motif, which he continually returned to from 1979. 

Turnbull famously asked: ‘How little will suggest a head?’ (the Artist, quoted in David Sylvester, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Paintings (exh. cat.), Serpentine Gallery, London, 1995, p.10). Simultaneously abstract and referent, Large Idol is distinctly feminine and is created with an extraordinary clarity and economy of expression. The otherwise sleek vertical form is interrupted by protruding elements that resemble breasts, and is further textured by suggestive details incised into the bronze that evoke the tribal markings of non-Western cultures. After absorbing the immediate impact of the sculpture from its distinctive front, the viewer is urged around the motionless monolith by these subtle lines. Erected at over human height, this feminine form is commanding and strips figurative sculpture back to the minimum; in fact, Turnbull’s sculptures are often either over or under life-sized, alluding to a figure rather than simply mimicking the human body so as not to distract from the work’s formal autonomy.

The elusiveness of Turnbull’s sculpture creates a dialogue with the viewer, and inspires endless interpretations; the experience of Large Idol evolves with every encounter. Turnbull was deeply interested in the presence of his statues in history, and this quiet yet fiercely elegant form will undoubtedly continue to resonate in the future as well as create connections with the past.