Slade School of Fine Art

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William Turnbull

23 November 2012

We are sad to announce that artist William Turnbull who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art has passed away. Emeritus Slade Professor, Bernard Cohen, has written an appreciation.

William Turnbull - 1 January 1922 - 15 November 2012
Three artists of note studied at the Slade School in the years immediately after World War II, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and William Turnbull who died in London on 15th November 2012. All three became members of the Institute of Contemporary Art ‘splinter’ Independent Group. Paolozzi and Hamilton established ground rules for ‘Pop Art’, Turnbull (early in his career he exhibited with Paolozzi and later with Hamilton) had his own more universal vision.

Always fiercely independent, he would never seek or attempt to make ground rules for art and was often critical of genres that demanded them. For Bill, real art did not come from theory or experiment. What artists did was for real; a first and only time thing.

William Turnbull was born in Dundee to working class parents. His Father a dock worker was put out of work when Bill was fifteen. Before World War II it would have been near impossible to go to full time art school without private means. So Bill’s route to the Slade was via early employment as a commercial artist, the Royal Air Force, and a much loved Sunderland Flying Boat that he flew in Canada, India and Ceylon.

He went to the Slade to study painting, but so much enjoyed making things that he transferred his attentions to the sculpture department. He wanted to be a painter and ultimately both painted and sculpted. He went to Paris in 1948 and met a number of the 20th century’s great artists, Giacometti and Leger among them. Paris then was in poor post war shape and it was the experience of great artists doing some of their best work in those depressed years that shaped Bill’s future.

Fernand Leger invited Bill to his Paris studio. Bill went in the late afternoon. The door to Leger's studio was ajar. Bill knocked. Leger called for him to enter. Bill found him working on a painting. Leger said "I am almost finished. I have been teaching all day and needed to do some work on this canvas". But why I asked Bill did Leger have to teach? He was after all one of the great founding masters of 20th century art. Bill replied, "Leger needed the money".

Bill was a realist. He was after all one of very few artists who achieved the titanic ambition of working beautifully at both painting and sculpture. He had the same ups and downs as many artists experience in their early years, but from the start he exhibited widely. Even while he was struggling to survive, he was making his art and showing it in major London galleries. His painting studio in London in the late 50s was his bedsit and his sculpture studio was a one-car lock up garage. One person shows at the Hanover Gallery and the ICA took place during that time.

Bill taught for many years at the Central School of Art and became a major influence on generations of young artists. In 1960 he was a key figure in the organisation of the Situation Exhibition in which his work was seen alongside a group of independently minded young painters. He went on to exhibit in all parts of the world. He was honoured with a major retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1973. His work will be seen in a retrospective exhibition at Chatsworth House in March 2013.

Bernard Cohen
Emeritus Slade Professor

See also www.guardian.co.uk and www.bbc.co.uk.

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