Anne Massey on William Turnbull

Anne Massey

29 Dec 2012
Anne Massey remembers William Turnbull, part of the ICA's great heritage, who died on 16th November 2012.

William Turnbull, who died at the age of 90 on 16th November 2012, was part of the ICA's great heritage. Most recently he attended the glamorous premier of Beyond Time: William Turnbull held in the ICA Cinema. Sponsored by Harper's & Queen, he joined celebrities Jude Law, who narrated the film, and Kate Moss at the red carpet event. Also in attendance was Nick Serota, who gave an erudite speech about this internationally renowned artist’s work. The film was made by his son, Alex Turnbull with Peter Stern, and affectionately explores the artist’s work, as well as his early life and rise to international acclaim. When the film finished, and the house lights went up, there was spontaneous audience applause. William Turnbull, never one for the limelight, sat quietly in his seat. His unassuming nature meant he did not court or suffer celebrity status, he let the work speak for itself.

Turnbull first exhibited at the ICA in 1950, when the fledgling organisation opened its new premises in Dover Street with the exhibition, 1950: Aspects of British Art, alongside fellow rising stars, Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. The same group of artists would also exhibit at an ICA show staged in the foyer of the Warner Theatre, Leicester Square that following year. But it wasn’t just exhibitions which were important for these artists, new to the cultural scene of 1950s London.  It was the social mingling, the opportunity to network, the chance to exchange views, the chance to argue and debate, which was just as important. One vehicle for this was the ICA’s Independent Group, which Turnbull was a member of from the beginning in 1952. He contributed to the ICA programme, Aesthetic Problems of Contemporary Art, organised by the Group, presenting a session on ‘New Concepts of Space’ with architect Fello Atkinson.

William Turnbull’s work reached an international audience in 1952 when he was part of the seminal display at the Venice Biennale, New Aspects of British Sculpture, selected by ICA President Herbert Read. Turnbull continued to exhibit at the ICA in the 1950s, including a textile design for Ambassador magazine. In 1957 he had a one-person show at the ICA of both painting and sculpture, which displayed his emerging interest in abstraction. He travelled to America during the same year and saw the work of the major American Abstract Expressionists, which had a major impact on his work. A solo show ensued at The Tate Gallery in 1973 curated by Richard Morphet. The in-depth catalogue provided the basis for much subsequent scholarship on the artist. His painting and sculptures form part of major public and private collections, including Tate, National Galleries of Scotland, Leeds Museum and Galleries, The British Council, the Arts Council and major collections in Chicago, LA, Washington and New York. There will be a retrospective at Chatsworth House next year of William Turnbull’s work, curated by Yorkshire Sculpture Park in collaboration with his son, Alex Turnbull. His work will live on.

Anne Massey is Professor at the School of Art & Design, Middlesex University and runs the Independent Group website.

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Tagged with: Archive, history, The Independent Group, William Turnbull