In 1946 William Turnbull, while a student at the Slade School of Art, made his first known sculpture of a horse's head. It was painted bright yellow and consisted primarily of two intersecting planes, one of which was punctured by two holes that served as eyes. Eight years later he made Horse, an unpainted work. Along with Pegasus (private collection), which was made earlier in 1954, Horse is one of William Turnbull's first sculptures in which separate sections made from different materials are stacked on top of one another in a manner reminiscent of Constantin Brancusi's (1876-1957) work. Turnbull had visited Brancusi's studio while living in Paris between 1948 and 1950 and has acknowledged the importance of this encounter with a form of sculpture quite different to the Neo-Romantic tradition he had known in England. Horse itself is comprised of a cube of rough-hewn stone that stands directly on the floor; a smooth, rectangular block of rosewood; and an arch of striated bronze, shaped to resemble a horse's head and neck.
While there are clear continuities between Horse and Pegasus, particularly in the use of materials and the handling of surface texture, the treatment of movement is radically different in the two works. The open, centrifugal arc described by Pegasus suggests physical dynamism, whereas the closed arch of Horse imposes a considerable sense of stillness on the sculpture. Around 1953 to 1954 Turnbull increasingly introduced stasis into his work. Thereafter it was to be central theme, investing it with what the curator Richard Morphet has described as a 'numinous silence' (Morphet, p.27).
The bronze's ribbed surface, which was common to much of Turnbull's sculpture during the early to mid 1950s, was achieved mainly by pressing corrugated paper into the wet plaster of the original model. While he determined where to apply the paper, the precise details of the marks were not foreseeable. The immediacy and unpredictability of this method greatly appealed to Turnbull. Writing in 1960 about his sculptures of this period, he stated 'I used texture to invoke chance, to create random discoveries, not to elaborate the surface, but to accentuate that it was a skin of bronze' (Turnbull, unpaginated). Like many avant-garde artists at that time, he valued the subconscious and irrational elements involved in the process of making art and sought to demonstrate their presence in his work. In this context, Zen Buddhism, particularly through D T Suzuki's Essays in Zen Buddhism, published in 1950, and Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery, published in 1953, was an important source for these artists.
The roughened surface gave Turnbull's works 'a rather battered look as if everything had happened to them' (Turnbull in a letter to Dennis Farr dated 31 May 1961, Tate Archive). Yet, despite their ancient appearance, these pieces were at the forefront of a contemporary challenge to the traditions of sculpture and cultural hierarchy. As a founding member of the Independent Group, a loose federation of avant-garde artists that emerged from the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1952, Turnbull sought to develop an approach to art that was relevant to the new reality of a modern, technological world. Central to this was a belief that, with the advent of the mass media, traditional distinctions between high and low art were no longer tenable. In their place the Independent Group artists pursued an inclusive approach to culture.
With Horse Turnbull borrowed from a wide range of sources, among them the Parthenon frieze, Brancusi and Oriental philosophy He also challenged the role of the plinth, a fundamental element in the display of sculpture since antiquity. Like Brancusi, who had partially integrated the plinth with the sculpture, Turnbull also deliberately confused the status of the base. In Horse it is not clear if the blocks of wood and stone are part of the sculpture or simply the support. If they are considered as an integral part of the work then the piece is standing directly on the floor, sharing the ground with the audience, and thus the plinth, a mediating barrier between viewer, is eliminated. Arguably, in this way Turnbull anticipated Anthony Caro's breakthrough sculpture Twenty Four Hours 1960 (Tate T01987) by six years.
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 working space in his small London studio. Horse, which was made in an edition of two, is one of the relatively few sculptures that survive from those years.
William Turnbull, 'Head Semantics', Uppercase, 4, 1960, unpaginated
Richard Morphet, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, pp.27-8
William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1995