William Turnbull was born in Dundee in 1922 and became a pilot in the RAF in 1941 but turned down a well-paid commercial pilot’s job to enrol at the Slade School of Art where he made friends with fellow Scotsman Eduardo Paolozzi. In 1947 he moved to Paris, where he lived for two years. During this time he met Hélion, Léger, Giacometti, Tazar, and Brancusi and was welcomed into their studios. Best known for his figurative and minimalist sculptures and abstract painting, he crossed the divide between primitive and contemporary art.
He had his first exhibition in 1950 in London alongside Paolozzi, and their work was shown together with Moore and Armitage amongst other in 'New Aspects of British Sculpture' at the Venice Bienalle of 1952. From mid-1950s he stopped depicting movement in favour of conveying stillness, at first making masks and paintings of heads, followed by standing figures. He then started to form totemic pieces combining elements form separate sculptures. In 1956 he became greatly impressed by American Abstract Expressionist and the work of Rothko and Still. He was married with Singaporean-British sculptor and printmaker Kim Lim with whom he had two sons.