William Turnbull, 90, Scottish figurative sculptor

Mr. Turnbull’s works — paintings and prints as well as sculptures — have been exhibited in London, Leeds, and San Francisco.

The Guardian/file 1950

Mr. Turnbull’s works — paintings and prints as well as sculptures — have been exhibited in London, Leeds, and San Francisco.

NEW YORK — William Turnbull, a Scottish sculptor known for his blending of modernism with archaic and primitive forms, died on Nov. 15 in London. He was 90.

Mr. Turnbull’s nearly seven-decade career traced something of a full circle. From postwar European figurative sculpture, as reflected in works by Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore, he turned toward an organic form of semi-abstraction as displayed by Constantin Brancusi, then to a hard-edged, geometric Minimalist trend before returning to a figurative style.


Achieving renown in Britain, he was best known for simplified, rough-looking forms with tactile surfaces that he distilled from ancient but sophisticated objects like votive goddess figures, masks, totems, stone tools, and arrowheads, as well as ancient architecture like the dolmens of Stonehenge.

When an exhibition of his small bronzes came to the Waddington Gallery in Manhattan in 1982, Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times that Mr. Turnbull had long been ‘‘one of the most distinguished modernists on the British art scene.’’

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‘‘What we are offered in these works is, in effect, a synthesis of primitivism and modernism,’’ Kramer added. ‘‘The result is highly poetic.’’

Over the years Mr. Turnbull’s works — paintings and prints as well as sculptures — have been exhibited at galleries like the Hayward and Serpentine in London and the Berggruen in San Francisco. They are in the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland and the Leeds Museum in England.

Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, said Mr. Turnbull’s art had come from his ‘‘admiration for the simple forms of ancient and Eastern cultures and his abiding search for the essence in any object,’’ but that it ‘‘always had a humanist sensibility that identified it as profoundly European.’’


Born in Dundee, Scotland, William Turnbull dropped out of school at 15 and worked as a laborer to support his family during the Depression. He took arts classes at night and impressed a teacher, who helped him find work as an illustrator at a publishing company.

He joined the Royal Air Force in 1941, serving as a pilot in Asia during World War II. After the war he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, and found his passion in the sculpture department.

Mr. Turnbull’s wife, sculptor Kim Lim, died in 1997. He leaves two sons, Alex and Johnny, and three grandchildren.

Bronze, wood, stone, and steel were among the materials that Mr. Turnbull shaped. But he was captivated, he once said, by the idea that with a bag of plaster dust he ‘‘could make something out of nothing.’’

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