By 1956, when this work was conceived, Turnbull had already held his first solo show at Hanover Gallery and had been included in Herbert Read’s Venice Biennale of 1952, which welcomed a new generation of post-war sculptors to the international stage. However, it was only in the mid to late 1950s that his works met with commercial enthusiasm, culminating in Turnbull’s introduction to the American collector Donald Blinken and an invitation to America in 1957 where his work had a welcoming and receptive audience. A testament to which can be seen in Hockney’s portraits of Betty Freeman and Fred and Marcia Weisman, both of which depict works by Turnbull in the background.
By 1956, Turnbull’s ‘Standing Figures’ and ‘Idols’ of 1955 had developed into a series of two-part sculptures in which a horizontal beam is perfectly balanced on a tall, vertical standing form. The present work along with Sungazer
and Permutation Sculpture
, were early investigations into this theme. The vertical, totemic form alludes to fluted Greek columns and reflects Turnbull’s interest in ancient cultures. However, there is also the suggestion of a human form, refined and pared down even further than the earlier motionless standing figures. Turnbull confirms this in an interview with Colin Renfew relating to his work of the time: ‘There are certain images which seem to stay in my memory … I remember seeing an image of somewhere in the West Indies where there was this man walking along a beach and he had this long thin coffin balancing on this head. The image, every time I see it, seems to act as a trigger: it excites me, I seem to respond to it’ (William Turnbull, quoted in William Turnbull: Sculpture and Paintings
, exh. cat. Waddington Galleries, 1998, p.9).
The overriding sensation this work evokes, however, is the quality of the controlled stability formed between two simple, motionless forms. The slim horizontal beam seems to barely touch the head of the vertical, yet stays in perfect balance, poised in space. A stillness and silence pervades this elegant sculpture, which is placed directly on the ground, eliminating the traditional plinth and inviting us to directly interact with the work.
In contrast to the simplicity of the forms, the bronze’s ribbed and heavily corrugated textures give it a rough and weathered surface. This ‘surface skin’ was particularly important to Turnbull who, from the mid 1940s, worked directly in plaster applied to a metal armature; he created the ribbed texture by utilising corrugated paper. Turnbull was also meticulous in his choice of colour and patination, and unlike most sculptors of the time, he preferred to work on the patinas himself at the foundry. Each work from this edition is unique in the colouring of its patina. In the present work, Turnbull has employed rich tones of brown with carefully deployed hints of deep reddish hues. As Turnbull himself said: ‘It makes a hell of a difference to a bronze whether you patina it brown or reddish or greenish or blue. It has something to do I felt with the expressive quality of the bronze itself’ (Turnbull quoted on Radio Four, ‘Last Word', 23rd November 2012).