By the mid 1950s, Turnbull was regarded as one of the leading artists of his generation, receiving transatlantic acclaim whilst he was still in his thirties. By this time, he was represented by the prestigious Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York alongside the principal figures of American abstract painting, and had exhibited in the Venice Biennale’s British pavilion alongside sculptors Lynn Chadwick, Henry Moore, Reg Butler and Eduardo Paolozzi. Conceived in 1956-58, the present work comes from one of Turnbull’s most productive periods during which he created his Idols and Totem series.
Dissatisfied with the limitations of his earlier linear sculpture, Turnbull began to focus on creating solid three-dimensional heads and masks in plaster and bronze, exploring the concept of surface and volume in space. His use of simplistic and abstracted shapes incised with impulsive ridges and grooves, launched Turnbull into a new preoccupation of conveying figurative and metamorphic suggestions with universally ‘primitive’ forms: a concept which became a principal theme of his oeuvre. From 1958 to 1962, Turnbull’s sculptures consisted of two or more separate elements placed on top of one another and, despite a will towards intense abstraction, these works alluded to the image of the standing figure comprised of simplified human proportions. Taking inspiration from Constantin Brancusi, who he met during his time in Paris, Turnbull began to further explore the concept of his materials. In removing the base of his sculptures, as seen in Ancestral Totem, the artist was able to blur the distinction between the ground and the work, bringing his objects closer to the viewer. This became a recurring feature with the ‘New Generation’ sculptors, such as Sir Anthony Caro, during the 1960s.
Turnbull’s sculptures were not simply related to the sense of familiarity of form and material. Inspired heavily by the multitude of archaeological and anthropological objects and religious statues found in the British Museum, his modernist totems often allude to pre-classical forms of art, emphasised by rudimentary modelling or carving that instead exhibit a notion of timelessness. Additional stimulus from the ICA’s splinter movement, the Independent Group, supported Turnbull in the inclusivity of these archaic objects in parallel with contemporary art.
Ancestral Totem, a unique work from this period, undoubtedly captures these influences together with Turnbull’s modernist approach to sculpture. In contrast to Turnbull’s earlier totems, the present work stands at over six feet high - its monumental scale and bronze form evoke a strong presence of stillness and sacrality. Comprised of two juxtaposed shapes, seemingly precariously balanced together, Turnbull introduces a sense of chance, movement and tension between each element. The upper section of Ancestral Totem can be identified as a cast of Drum, 1956. Turnbull’s deliberate use of permutations and multiple configurations of his sculpture draws attention to the flexibility of interpretation and the continuous nature of the creative process. Intricate markings (achieved by chance scratches and impressions from objects pushed into the clay) and raised geometric shapes throughout both forms of the present work allude to organic, anthropomorphic elements such as tattooed skin, limbs and genitalia, recalling the ancient Greek Herm columns and representations of the Egyptian God of fertility, Min.
‘I am always amazed how objects that are three thousand, four thousand or more years old can look as if they were done much more recently than things made fifty or sixty years ago. This way they can jump right through time. To be able to look at objects without hierarchy, without feeling that this one is higher, more developed than that one, this is very refreshing’ (W. Turnbull in conversation with C. Renfrew, 6 May 1998, exhibition catalogue, William Turnbull sculpture and paintings, London, Waddington Galleries, 1998, p. 7).
Sir Nicholas Goodison commented: ‘I first bought it for TSB from the New Art Centre in 1990. I intended it for the TSB’s new retail headquarters in Birmingham, but the Head of Retail showed no enthusiasm for it. So it stood imposingly in the foyer of each TSB’s Head Offices in London at 25 Milk Street and then 60 Lombard Street. Following the merger with Lloyds banking hall in 1995⁄96 it stood at the far end of the banking hall at 71 Lombard Street, usually accompanied by a red fire extinguisher which I vainly moved away day after day.’