Catalogue entry

William Turnbull b.1922

T00903 Mobile Stabile 1949

Not inscribed.
Bronze, 15¿ x 27 ¿ x 20 (38.4 x 68.9 x 50.8).
Purchased from the artist through the Waddington Galleries (Knapping Fund) 1967.
Exh. Kenneth King, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Hanover Gallery, February–March 1950 (17, the plaster original); Venice Biennale, 1952 (British Pavilion 148).
Lit. David Sylvester, catalogue introduction to Hanover Gallery exhibition already cited, 1950; Lawrence Alloway, ‘Britain’s New Iron Age’, Art News, Summer 1953.
Repr. Andrew Ritchie, Sculpture of the Twentieth Century, New York, 1952, p. 218; Art News, Summer 1953, p. 20.

The sole cast (made in 1950) from the plaster original. Contemporary drawings around the idea are in the possession of the artist.

The artist wrote (7 June 1967): ‘This is the third version done through 1949. The first version was destroyed by me. The second was destroyed along with about twenty other sculptures left in storage when I quit Paris at the end of 1950.

‘So much of the work being done at that time in London and in Paris seemed to take for granted a large number of conventions without much questioning (most of them cubist mannerism). I decided to work with as limited means as possible. To try to handle formal means that I had a chance of questioning and understanding, without having to take too much for granted. Were there limits to the subject matter of sculpture? Was it more limited than painting? I did a few “landscape”sculptures to try to rethink sculptural “composition”. The drawings of Klee were important then. I was very involved with the random movement of pin-ball machines, billiards (which I played a lot) and ball games of this sort; and the predictable movement of machines (in the Science Museum). Movements in different planes at different speeds. I loved aquariums. Fish in tanks hanging in space and moving in shoals. The movement of lobsters. I became quite expert with a diabolo. I was obsessed with things in a state of balance.

‘During the spring of that year at the house of friends in the country outside Paris and later in summer swimming and diving at Banyuls I was fascinated with things moving and touching and perceptually convinced of energy as creation. The movement of insects, fish and plants seemed to be a making and breaking of contacts. Like a marvellous electrical system. The word most in my mind was “contiguity”. Perhaps it doesn’t express what I mean but it acted as a mnemonic aid. I wanted to make sculpture that would express implication of movement (not describe it), ambiguity of content, and simplicity (lack of interesting detail separate from the whole). This sculpture is a little “machine” where I tried to bring together these varied thoughts within the limits of the means I had set myself. The opposite of the grand manner and means of the romantics. A sort of transistorised version of creation.’

Turnbull’s own contemporary notes illuminate this sculpture: ‘A conversation between Basho and a disciple – “a dragonfly – take off its wings – a pimento.” Basho replies, “a pimento – put on its wings – a dragonfly.”’

‘Variability. All substances showing infinite variability within a similar structure.

‘Life is a constant series of reactions in a complex organised substance, by means of which the organisation tends to adjust itself to a constantly changing environment.’

‘Two ways of approaching an object.’

‘a. as a particular quality in itself.’

‘b. as a quality in relation to other things.’

‘The second of these methods seems to be the truer and most important.’

‘Planes approaching each other-change of position and speed relatively.’

‘Objects moving in relation to each other (aircraft in formation) – people in the Metro tunnels walking beside each other and towards one another.’

‘Movement is an integral part of being-each thing has its own characteristic motion and attitude.’

A closely related work, Playground 1949, was not cast in bronze till the late 1950s.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1966–1967, London 1967.