Details & Cataloguing

Modern & Post-War British Art


William Turnbull
stamped with Artist's monogram, numbered 2/4 and dated 57 on the integral base
height: 134cm.; 53in.
Conceived and cast in 1957, the present work is number 2 from the edition of 4.
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The Artist
Waddington Galleries, London, where acquired by the present owner


New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Turnbull, October 1963, cat. no.17, illustrated (another cast);
London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull: Sculpture 1967-68, 1957-67, 11th March – 4th April 1970, cat. no.15, illustrated (another cast);
London, Tate, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, 15th August - 7th October 1973, cat. no.36, illustrated p.36;
London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull: Sculptures 1946-62, 1985-87, 28th October – 21st November 1987, cat. no.10, illustrated p.31 (another cast);
Cambridge, Jesus College, Sculpture in the Close: An Exhibition of the Works of William Turnbull, 24th June – 31st July 1990, cat. no.7, illustrated p.26 (another cast);
London, Waddington Galleries, Paintings 1959-1963, Bronze Sculpture 1954-1958, 24th November - 22nd December 2004, pp.37, 45, cat. no.17 (another cast);
Wakefield, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, William Turnbull Retrospective 1946-2003, 14th May - 9th October 2005, cat. no.28, illustrated p.18;
Chatsworth, Chatsworth House, William Turnbull at Chatsworth, 10th March - 30th June 2013, cat. no.62, illustrated p.47 (another cast).


Bernard Cohen, 'William Turnbull: Painter and Sculptor', Modern Painters, Winter 1995, pp.30-35, illustrated p.32 (another cast);
Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Much Hadham, 2005, cat. no.76, illustrated p.34 (another cast).

Catalogue Note

William Turnbull’s Screwhead is a key component in an important group of sculptures, made between the mid-50s to mid-60s, through which the artist established himself as one of the most important voices in British sculpture. Significantly, this particular cast of Screwhead was kept by Turnbull in his own personal collection. Shown at his ground-breaking 1973 Tate retrospective, it was only relinquished by him late on in life, after an extended loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park persuaded him that it was time to let someone else be its custodian. 

From the mid-1950s, Turnbull had begun to solidify the etiolated forms of his breakthrough work of the late 40s onwards into something simpler, more archetypal, as he searched to create symbolic representations of the human form that could speak both to our past and the current human condition. For Turnbull, these were ‘the consistent themes in sculpture’ that could be seen in any great museum of world culture. The history of sculpture could itself be described as the history of archetypes: our desire and need to make three-dimensional forms, etched with patterns or daubed with feathers, animal fat, blood, both to describe and understand our presence in the world, and to be our avatars, our intermediaries between this world and the next. 

It is this deep and powerful history that Turnbull’s work seeks to access. Screwhead, for example, feels uncompromisingly modern, in its rectilinear form, its overt minimalism and, of course, in the flat-head screw that stands in for that most expressive of things, the human face. But equally it feels decidedly ancient, an artefact from a time pre-dating Classical antiquity, maybe going as far back as the Willendorf Venus, a time of simplified, powerful totems that stood at the heart of holy places, wreathed in incense and smoke, or out on the sides of roads, offering protection and luck and marking boundaries between worlds. Within this overall rectilinear, minimal form, the body is delineated by blocks or areas of lightly scored geometric lines that mark the most important facets of the body: face, breast, sex. This is the female body reduced to a map of its numinous places.

As the critic David Sylvester wrote of Turnbull’s works, they are ‘hieratic’ in ‘the word’s true sense, consistent with its etymology…to do with what is priestly…with what pertains to sacred persons or functions’ (David Sylvester, 'Bronze Idols and Untitled Paintings' in William Turnbull: Sculpture and Paintings, Merrell Holberton / Serpentine Gallery, London, 1996, p.9). And yet in the unforgiving brutality of their forms and the roughness of their surfaces, where the artist's fingers can be seen to drag and work the matière, they are absolutely Modern, referencing both Brancusi and Giacometti. By being both ancient and modern, they speak to one of Modernism’s central tenets (based on the work of the psychologist Carl Jung), that of ‘universal form’: shapes, balances, relationships that describe the deep, underlying nature of human experience. For Jung (and Modernist artists) these forms were now lost to industrial Western culture but preserved and very much ‘alive’ in non-European tribal art or the artefacts from ‘primitive’ cultures. Turnbull’s work of the 1950s and the 1970s onwards (see lot 18) when he returned to sculpting in bronze, seek to access this power and recreate it for our times.  

Modern & Post-War British Art