The earliest work in the exhibition is ‘Mask’, 1946. Originally conceived in concrete and string it was made whilst Turnbull was still a student at the Slade, London. In 1948 he transferred his grant to study in Paris, there meeting Brancusi, Léger and becoming friends with Hélion and Giacometti. In 1950, having moved back to London, he made ‘Horse’, a linear dissection of three-dimensional space that stands poised without a base. This bronze has a direct relationship to the paintings of heads and ‘Figure’ from 1956, their motifs built from thick interlinking bars of monochromatic impasto.
To create ‘Figure’ 1955 corrugated cardboard was pressed into wet plaster making the column-like figure appear fashioned from seams of strata, its elemental shape revealed by lines of erosion – the fluid plaster fossilized into bronze, creating an aura of permanence and stillness. ‘Screwhead’, 1957, is a similar upturned-T composition whose forms originated from a chocolate grinder and grandfather clock but again, through Turnbull’s economy of expression, suggests a motionless totemic figure.
These sculptures have a surface texture also seen in his paintings of that period such as the mysterious dark ridges of ‘Black Painting’, 1957, made with a palette knife. The Monet retrospective of that year encouraged his exploration that painting could be about painting alone, leading Turnbull to subsequently abandon figurative elements in his own painting. The sculpture ‘Strange Fruit’, 1959, rests on its base like a primordial cranium, honed and shaped, weathered and pitted by the passage of time. The title, always given after the work is completed, is from a Billie Holiday song and offers the viewer a direction rather than description.
Turnbull was drafted into the services in 1941. He joined the RAF and served as a pilot, being stationed in Canada, Ceylon and India. The experience of flying – an unravelling of perspective and opening of spatial dimension – was to have a major impact on his work both through being airborne and the resulting flattening of the landscape. This tension between balance, movement and stillness can be seen in Turnbull’s painting ‘20–1959’ where two planes of colour are split by a single graceful high arch. In the large two-panel work ‘13–1960’ there is also a chromatic balance, orange being balanced by its complementary hue, blue, both divided by a central passage of earth brown.