William Turnbull



Not on display
William Turnbull 1922–2012
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1270 x 1016 mm
frame: 1300 x 1047 x 45 mm
Purchased 1990


From 1950 to 1957 the head was a major theme in William Turnbull's paintings and sculptures. In both disciplines he explored the limits of the motif, often abstracting it up to the edge of its legibility as a head. He later divulged that during the mid 1950s the word itself had 'meant for me what I imagined the word "Landscape" had meant for some painters - a format that could carry different loadings.' ('Head Semantics', Uppercase, unpaginated). He continued, 'The sort of thing that interested me was - how little will suggest a head, how much load will the shape take and still read head, head as colony, head as landscape, head as mask, head as ideogram, head as sign, etc'. Referring specifically to the paintings, he said that he had not wanted 'to transpose the head from three dimensional reality to a flat surface - but to imagine what a head would be if flat (squeezed between two pieces of glass like a micro-slide) and made of paint marks'.

Like many artists in the mid 1950s, Turnbull greatly prized the element of chance, remarking 'I prefer the hazards and chance remarks of conversation. The peripheral glance, the observation from the corner of my eye is what interests me.' Within his own paintings he sought to incorporate chance by working directly onto the canvas without making any preparatory sketches. The figure in Head is created from small panes of colour applied in a seemingly random manner; a technique reminiscent of Nicolas de Stael's (1914-55) abstracted figures made up of dabs of thick paint or pâtes. Mathiessen's Gallery in London had held de Stael's first solo exhibition in Britain in 1952 and during the summer of 1956 the Whitechapel Art Gallery held a retrospective of his work. The critic Lawrence Alloway (1926-90), in a series of articles published in Art News and Review, traced the genealogy of this form of abstracted figuration to the Ecole de Paris of the 1940s. Given the textural surface of Head and the indeterminate nature of the image, Alloway's description of Jean Dubuffet's (1901-85) and Henri Michaux's (1899-1984) work is apposite: 'Henri Michaux whose materials are watercolour and ink, often used on wet paper to introduce unpredictable thickenings and dissolutions of line. The crust of paint in a Dubuffet, from which figures emerge as though tarred and feathered by the medium, corresponds to Michaux's delicate washes and lines from which images emerge conditioned by the physical characteristics of the medium. The images may seem only a little different from random marks and stains but it is in this little distance that his art, and that of many post-war artists, happens.' (Lawrence Alloway 'Background to Action: 3. Paris in the 1940s', Art News and Review, vol. IX, 9 November 1957, p.1). Turnbull had lived in Paris from 1948-50 and was familiar with the work of both artists.

Fragmented heads appeared in the work of several British artists in the early and mid 1950s, including that of Turnbull's friends Eduardo Paolozzi (b.1924) and Nigel Henderson (1917-85). For these artists such work as Jean Fautrier's (1897-1964) Otages series, which was first exhibited in Paris in 1945, may have provided a European precedent, but equally their invention may have been inspired by imagination or a wide range of other sources outside the canon of high art.

In January 1956 Modern Art in the United States opened at the Tate Gallery. The room displaying Abstract Expressionism had an enormous impact on the work of many British artists, but for Turnbull the full importance of this strand of contemporary American art only became apparent after a short trip to New York early in 1957. Thereafter, the head motif disappeared from his paintings as he developed a purely abstract style.

Between 1952 and 1956 Turnbull sold no work and was living in poverty. During this period he was forced to destroy many sculptures and paintings to make a working space in his small London studio. Head is one of the relatively few paintings that survive from those years.

Further reading:
William Turnbull, 'Head Semantics', Uppercase, 4, 1960, unpaginated
Richard Morphet, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, pp.31-3
William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1995

Toby Treves
June 2001

Display caption

Turnbull is well known today both for his sculpture and his abstract paintings. Between 1950 and 1957 the fragmented head was a major theme in his paintings, reliefs and sculpture. He said that his paintings developed out of a desire to ‘imagine what a head would be if flat (squeezed between two pieces of glass like a micro-slide) and made of paint marks’. He later explained that the word ‘head’ had ‘meant for me what I imagined the word ‘landscape’ had meant for some painters – a format that could carry different loadings’.

Gallery label, July 2007

Technique and condition

The 'C' grade canvas was primed and stretched by C. Roberson and Co Ltd. The cotton canvas is single primed with a white oil ground and attached to an expandable stretcher with galvanised tacks.

The oil paints used are Roberson's artists' colours thinned only in some of the initial brushed applications. The majority of the paint is applied with a palette knife in discrete, impasted strokes leaving delicately lipped edges where the knife has been drawn away from the canvas. The colours are often intermixed on the canvas during painting. Some areas were scraped down before making further applications and many small areas of primed canvas remain uncovered, especially towards the perimeter.

The painting is unvarnished and in good condition. Not framed on acquisition, after consultation with the artist, a simple painted wood frame has been fitted.

Roy Perry


You might like