Catalogue entry

William Turnbull b. 1922

T01381 Horse 1954

Not inscribed.
Bronze, rosewood and stone, 44½ x 28¼ x 10¿ (113 x 72 x 27).
Presented by Alistair McAlpine 1971.
Exh: Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, October 1963 (28); Newport Harbor Pavilion Gallery, Balboa, California, March–April 1966 (1, repr.); The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, June–August 1971 (45, repr.).
Lit: Richard Morphet, in catalogue of The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, 1971, pp. 106–21.
Repr: Uppercase, 4, 1960, pages not numbered (detail only).

The notes on all acquisitions of sculpture by Turnbull from T01381 to T01391 inclusive are based on the compiler’s conversations with the artist in 1971 and were approved by him. They are quoted or adapted here from the text of the catalogue of the Alistair McAlpine Gift at the Tate Gallery in 1971.

T01381 is from an edition of two. Around 1953, Turnbull reacted against his early works’ concern with movement and space. He became preoccupied by stasis. His ‘Mask’ reliefs of 1953 (masks being symbols for the withdrawal of direct contact with particular personalities) presented human attributes only in generalised form—as, later, would the ‘Idols’ and the totemic sculptures. Turnbull was anxious to reduce both the metaphoric associations, the formal complexities, and the exclusively aesthetic character of the use of materials, seen in much sculpture of the mid-1950’s. Thus ‘Horse’, a generalised horse-head form, relates as closely to the sculpted horses in the Parthenon frieze (again, nature at one remove) as to the appearance of an actual animal. Its greater vigour (for all its stillness) than conventional horse sculpture of its period results from Turnbull being more interested in material and form than in metamorphosis. The idea ‘horse’ emerged from rather than motivated or permitted the sculptural process. The desired primacy of object over subject was facilitated by formal compression. The immediately preceding ‘Pegasus’, 1954, though close in subject and identical in technique, thrust into space in several directions, from a long spine. ‘Horse’, though only a part of the body, has greater self-sufficiency; moreover, resting nearly symmetrically, creating an elementary arch-form, it is more matter-of-fact.

It also exemplifies the rejection, typical of the new art of its period (as in Bacon, Paolozzi, Dubuffet, de Kooning, Kitchen Sink and early Pop) of a conventionally art-like look springing from a respectful handling of materials. By contrast with the lengthy craftsmanship of plaster for bronze, the animated surface of Horse results from pressing corrugated paper direct into soft plaster—a process in which marks are made instantly and in which the surface is articulated, to an important degree, by the operation of chance (both Dada and oriental philosophy influenced Turnbull’s wish to disrupt will as a known quality). The aim was not so much surface decoration as varied kinds of control as the eye moved across the surface. This manner of surface handling, an assertion of the nature of the plaster and bronze process, had propensities of swift change which augmented Turnbull’s sense of discovering something through the working process rather than subordinating that process to the making of a preconceived entity. He wanted sculpture to emerge with the directness of a suddenly found (rather than wrought) object, almost as if it had been dug up (an attitude which links him with Paolozzi and Hamilton in the ‘contemporary archaeology’ of popular culture). Turnbull’s interest in the art forms of ancient cultures parallels those which he shared with his contemporaries in myth, junk culture, the mass media, and the art of children, the primitive and the insane, in the wish to combine detachment towards (often powerful) subject-matter with directness in the use of materials and the creation of form.

As his totemic sculptures would make explicit, Turnbull preferred the atmosphere of stonemason’s or wood yard to that of the fine artist’s studio. Like the strong feeling for the archaic in his work, this quality, projected by a sculpture, would help to avoid an inhibiting feeling of ‘modern art’ by, in Turnbull’s words, ‘taking it out of time’. This direct feeling is expressed in ‘Horse’ by the elementary blocks of wood and stone which are part of the sculpture, and nor base or pedestal as such. The focus of the sculpture remains on the head, but ‘Horse’ shows Turnbull’s developing sense of the mode of a sculpture’s connection with the ground as an essential part of the work.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.