William Turnbull's History Lesson
Chatsworth House Trust
By ROSLYN SULCAS
Published: June 10, 2013
Chatsworth, England — Two bright blue steel right-angles lean negligently against one another on an expanse of lawn. Five lemon-yellow triangles form a playful tunnel. A gleaming stainless steel column with rippled, undulating sides stands near a stone archway. Totemic bronze figures with superbly variegated patinas and subtle striations stand peacefully on guard.
The pieces — some 40 of them, carefully placed on part of the 105-acre, or 42-hectare, gardens of Chatsworth, one of the grandest of Britain’s many grand houses — may look very different. But they are all by the British sculptor William Turnbull, an artist whose 70-year career encompassed the changing movements of the postwar art world, but whose work remained resolutely personal in its pared-down essentialism and poetic formal simplicity.
Turnbull, who died in November, aged 90, has a solid reputation in Britain, but he has never received the international acclaim that has greeted earlier figures like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, or contemporaries like Anthony Caro.
But the Chatsworth display of Turnbull’s range and sculptural power (as well as a small, but striking display of paintings), curated by Clare Lilley and the painter’s son, Alex Turnbull, offers a chance to look anew at his body of work.
“I think he is a distinctive voice and a major figure,” said Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate museums, who grew to know Turnbull after curating an exhibition of work by the artist’s Singapore-born wife, Kim Lim, at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in 1975.
“In the 1960s and 1970s he was the foremost exponent in Britain, perhaps in Europe, of what was seen as American minimalism,” Mr. Serota said in an interview by telephone. “In the 1980s, he began to look at Eastern cultures and that took him into a place that was not in fashion, in the sense that art — at least the art that was being most discussed — was of a more conceptual character. So he began to occupy a position that was more isolated.”
By all accounts — some of them in the 2011 documentary film, “Beyond Time,” by Alex Turnbull and Pete Stern — Turnbull never cared about fame. Born in 1922 in Dundee, Scotland, the son of a shipyard engineer, he dropped out of school at 15 and worked as a laborer when his father lost his job in the Depression. An avid drawer as a child, he began to take art classes at night, and at 17 found a job as an illustrator for a comic and magazine publisher.
In 1941, he joined the Royal Air Force, serving as a pilot in India and Ceylon. That turned out to be an experience that was to greatly influence his art.
“When you are flying in an aeroplane and you’re looking down at a landscape, it’s nothing like the same landscape as the one Constable was painting,” Turnbull says in “Beyond Time.” “Suddenly you looked down and there is this endless abstraction. It was a new kind of way of seeing the world.”
After the war, he signed up at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he befriended a fellow Scot, Eduardo Paolozzi, and joined the sculpture department. In 1948, he went to Paris, where he met, among others, Giacometti and Brancusi. (He tells a nice story in “Beyond Time” of sticking his foot in the reclusive Brancusi’s door, until the artist is forced to let him in.)
The influence of both of these artists is evident in his early work; at Chatsworth, the indoor North Sketch Gallery contains small sculptures and a series of 1950s paintings of wiry, impressionistic heads that show the link with Giacommetti, but also a use of color and quality of energy that is all the artist’s own.
In “Landscape” (1957) and “15-1958,” (1958), other influences are apparent; their connection to work by the American abstract expressionists like Rothko and Barnett Newman (both of whom Turnbull had on a visit to New York in 1956) is clear in their thick brushstrokes, textural quality and glowing colors.
“I wanted to show the relationship between figurative and abstract in the work,” said Alex Turnbull, who curated the indoor part of the Chatsworth exhibition, and who, with his brother Johnny, grew up “washing the sculptures for pocket money.”
Both sons, who were co-founders of the post-punk band 23 Skiddoo, now look after their father’s affairs, and Mr. Turnbull was speaking in their office, a clean-lined Shoreditch studio in London filled with paintings and sculptures.
“People really struggled with the idea that you could be both a painter and a sculptor,” he said. “But Bill never identified himself as one or the other; he saw himself just as an artist.”
Turnbull’s equal interest in painting and sculpture may not have helped him establish an artistic identity; neither did his austere modernity.
“I’m sure if he had been an American artist, he would have been more celebrated,” Mr. Serota said. “His career in many ways was parallel to Ellsworth Kelly in its enthusiasm for pure form and color. But I think there is a natural inclination within British art to tell stories, to have representation. It’s like the difference between George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton in dance.”
Many admirers of Turnbull’s early work were indeed American.
“I bought my first Turnbull pieces in 1955,” said Donald Blinken, who would later co-found the investment banking firm E.M. Warbug, Pincus & Co. “What for me makes his work particularly wonderful to live with is that it has a timeless quality — it doesn’t look like it comes from 1955 or from 2013. It has a feeling of always being right. In that sense he got much inspiration from Brancusi, whose work has that same wonderful sense of permanency and correctness.”
Success, nonetheless, came slowly.
“The reception was impossible,” said Leslie Waddington, whose gallery Waddington Custot has represented Turnbull since 1967. “Rauschenberg, early Diebenkorn, Turnbull, there was no interest in that art then. The American museums bought a bit of Bill’s early stuff. Fred Wiseman, a big collector bought his work and you can see it in a painting Hockney did of the Wisemans. But people didn’t like abstraction — and they still don’t. Bill still isn’t popular in the way that certain artists are, but he has an unassailable quality about him.”
That quality is resonant in Chatsworth’s magnificent landscaped gardens, a serene and grandly natural context in which the large metal sculptures, dating from 1955 to 1999, sit like benevolent monoliths.
“They seem very peaceful to me, very contemplative,” said the Duke of Devonshire, whose family has resided at Chatsworth since 1549. Since 2006, it has been the site of contemporary art exhibitions that provide visitors to the house (more than a million a year) with something more than the customary stately home tour.
“It is the best fun,” said the Duke, who bought a Turnbull piece in 1991, but said that he had first thought of an exhibition at the house after seeing a 2005 show of Turnbull’s work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
“We went to the house and met him, and had a really good chat. The most revealing part for me was the paintings and works on paper; I had no idea he was such a good painter, and I’m glad we show that here. I wish he could have seen it.”
Ms. Lilley who is the director of program at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, was a natural choice as curator for the outdoor section.
“We had far too many pieces to begin with,” she said in an interview by telephone. “But I didn’t want a busy show. There is a degree of choreography in the movement around the sculptures, how they punctuate the landscape and how you move around them. I think that landscape allows each work to have its own space, to lead you on to the next so that you see the evolution from the 1950s figures, which have a modernist sense about them, to the painted and stainless steel of the 1960s, and then, later, the metamorphic Venuses and the horse on a much larger scale.”
Although the work can look dramatically varied, Turnbull’s central preoccupations are enduring, Ms. Lilley said.
“There are different voices, but the same concerns,” she said. “His love for and interest in the ordinary things around us — tools, utensils, bowls, things made by human hands and expressions of our humanity. There is an ordinariness in terms of where the work comes from, but also real timelessness and an integrity which is extraordinarily undramatic. The work is powerful in a way that whispers.”