MGM 2005: William Turnbull At Yorkshire Sculpture Park's New Underground Gallery

By James Murphy | 01 June 2005
shows a large paddle shaped sculpture stood on a plinth in a garden

Aphrodite 1957 © the artist. Photograph by Jonty Wilde.

James Murphy enjoys an afternoon of sober reflection at the Yorskhire Sculpture Park.

To celebrate the opening of its stunning new Underground Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park is holding a retrospective of one of Britain’s foremost sculptors.

A masterful creation of wood, sandstone, steel and glass with a turf roof, the gallery fits seamlessly into the park’s beautiful landscape. But the architects’ natural style is mirrored and bettered by the most extensive exhibition of William Turnbull’s eclectic works since 1973.

Born in Dundee in 1922 Turnbull’s childhood was a contrast of the modern, contemporary culture he found in magazines and comics and the harsh realities of his environment. Interested in art from an early age he drew avidly and at 17 began work as an illustrator for DC Thompson.

shows a tall brown flat stone sclpture that resembles a human figure

Large female figure 1991 © the artist. Photograph by Jonty Wilde.

During World War Two Turnbull travelled extensively. As a RAF pilot he was exposed to different cultures in India and Ceylon. He studied at the Slade School of Art, London, from 1946-48 then moved to Paris until the end of 1950 where he had close contact with artists of the avante-garde movement.

Returning to London, Turnbull and his contemporaries came to embody British art’s break with academic tradition.

This exhibition is a retrospective of works spanning the years 1946 to 2003. The Underground Gallery, divided into three beautifully bright exhibition spaces splits Turnbull’s work into three distinct periods of his life.

The first gallery explores his work between the late 40s and mid 50s. Here we begin to see the emergence of the major themes that run throughout his oeuvre – the horse, the head, the mask and the standing figure.

shows a large sculpture consisting of a green cylindrical stone with an oval shape rock balancing on its zenith

Aphrodite 1957 © the artist. Photograph by Jonty Wilde.

Made primarily in bronze and copper the pieces are naturalistic and Turnbull’s interest in ‘primitive’ is evident in works such as Mask (1946).

A series of paintings, such as Calligraphic Head (1956), adorn the walls. They’re interesting in their exploration of similar themes and ideas and are often abstract, offering an insight into what interested Turnbull at this time.

Gallery Two comprises of sculptures from 1955-75 and paintings from 1960-2001. Many of his sculptures from the late 50s are of the standing figure; great silent forms which betray Turnbull’s interest in the art and philosophies of other cultures.

A clear progression can be seen from the works in Gallery One but there is also a sense of complete abandonment of his earlier style. Many of the pieces resemble Totem poles, as Turnbull seems to be working vertically.

shows a large cello shaped stone sculpture stood on a plinth

Large Siren 1986 © the artist. Photograph by Jonty Wilde.

He takes names from historical and mythological protagonists for much of his work from this period with Hannibal (1955) and Oedipus 3 (1962) two such examples. Both are stacked objects that stand directly on the floor to a towering height.

A dramatic departure from his earlier style is seen in the later work on show in this gallery. Turnbull begins using more contemporary and readily available materials and shapes.

Duct (1966) resembles an air vent whilst Cones (1968), made from fibreglass, is a series of cones arranged in a curved line. One of the most interesting conceptual pieces is Sculpture (1975); a number of parallel beams rest on the floor, their flowing grain, dissecting shakes and rings betraying a primeval beauty.

The paintings in this part of the exhibition are great masses of colour, very distinct and interesting in their own right and even more so when contrasted with the natural tones of his sculptural work.

shows a large arched stone sculpture in a garden

Large horse © the artist. Photograph by Jonty Wilde.

Gallery Three’s pieces date from 1979-2003 when Turnbull returns to the themes he explored earlier. Head, mask, horse and figure feature prominently as do direct references to Celtic and tribal art and objects.

There are numerous barely-formed figures like Small Venus (1979) clearly hinting at his interest in the archaic. Almost all the sculptures in this gallery are inscribed with shallow lines and indentations reminiscent of the tattooing and body painting seen in many cultures.

The exhibition spills out into the surrounding gardens and terraces. Ripple (1966) and No.5 (1964), seen on the gallery lawn, develop the totem theme. Brightly coloured and made of steel the pieces are imbued with dramatic impact because of the uneasy way they sit in the environment.

The pieces in the Formal Gardens and on the Formal Terrace also explore ideas seen throughout his work. The enormous Large Horse (1990) is Turnbull’s largest bronze sculpture to date. Many of the sculptures are more obvious about their influences - tribal art and idolatry.

The exhibition is an excellent opportunity to experience this challenging artist’s work in a new and exciting space.

Alongside the exhibition the gallery is running a series of William Turnbull Study Days, which will offer a chance to explore his work in depth.

Shows the Museums and Galleries Month logo.

James is participating in the 24 Hour Museum/ MGM Arts Writing Prize 2005.

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