Alex Turnbull

Alex Turnbull

London: Alex Turnbull has been immersed in art and experimental culture all his life. As the son of William Turnbull and Kim Lim, the multi-hyphenate musician, filmmaker, skater, and original member of the International Stüssy Tribe was born to two of Britain’s greatest post-war artists and sculptors. As well as pursuing a cross-disciplinary artistic life of his own, Alex has managed his parents’ estate with brother Johnny since 2006, repositioning William Turnbull and Kim Lim as key figures in international modern art.
Entering Alex’s North London home is like stepping into a microcosm of his creativity. On the parquet flooring of his kitchen—in front of a print made by the street artist Haze for the Mo Wax record label in association with Gimme 5—is one of William Turnbull’s bronze Blade sculptures. Nearby, a limited edition RVCA skateboard from artist Eric Haze signed ‘For Alex!’ rests next to an illustration by Kim Lim, whose abstract yet organic wooden and stone sculptures are scattered throughout Alex’s inviting home. Noticing a black-and-white photograph of Kim Lim in her studio in the 60s beside a resin sculpture produced by Supreme, it’s clear how much of Alex’s expansive aesthetic is a product of his parents’ boundless art. 

Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull

The son of a shipyard engineer from Dundee, Scotland, William Turnbull emerged from Slade School of Art in the late 50s as one of the Independent Group alongside Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. He was also part of the Geometry of Fear, a term coined by critic Herbert Read in 1952 for a group of young British sculptors, including Paolozzi, Reg Butler, and Lynn Chadwick, whose work responded to post-war anxieties. With a deep interest in ancient and non-Western art, paired with the possibilities of the modern age, William produced work—made with wood or pre-manufactured materials—that continued to examine balance, equilibrium, and gravity until his passing in 2012.  

Arriving in Britain from Singapore in 1954 to study at St. Martins and later at Slade, Kim Lim (who, sadly, passed away in 1996 at the age of 61) worked in various mediums, ranging from sculpture to printmaking, exploring concepts of form, space, rhythm, and light. Through her travels alongside William Turnbull (who died in November 2012 two months before his 91st birthday), she pursued an internationalist path, taking her place alongside pioneering female modernist sculptors such as Barbara Hepworth and Saloua Raouda Choucair.

While Alex and his brother Johnny have worked tirelessly to preserve their parents’ legacy, Alex has continued to pursue his own multi-artistic path. It’s been a balancing act, but in the process, he’s discovered some enlightening similarities between his creativity and that of his parents. These overlaps are where our conversation begins one sunny day in Alex’s North London home surrounded by his parents’ art.

Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull

I wanted to begin by asking: How did your own creativity and that of your parents intersect?

In a way, I think I was a polymath at a time when it wasn’t OK, and it was the same for my parents. But Johnny and I only later realised how much of their creativity they had passed down to us. That creativity was always going to manifest itself somehow, and it came out in skateboarding, martial arts, drumming, DJing, and all these other disciplines. I always get this question from people, ‘So you are not a fine artist? You’re not an artist?’ Yeah, I’m an artist, but my art is different. Those are all my forms of expression. As with my parents, people wrestled with that, because they didn’t know what I was. Now that kind of thing is normal.

While William Turnbull often sought inspiration from ancient artefacts, he had his eyes finely tuned to the modern world, working with Perspex and fibreglass. I understand he even once created a series of works inspired by the silhouette of your skateboards. 

That was his Metamorphic Venus series of sculptures, and the board was actually the Turner Summer Ski board. For years I couldn’t find it, and then one day, I walked into his studio and there it was, leaning up against the wall. It’s not that he got the idea from the deck, but he recognised these beautiful lines which reminded him of other ancient sculptures.

What are your first memories of growing up as the son of artists?

It’s really funny to think about now, but at the time, art really was not popular. My dad was born in the ‘20s in Dundee and began working in the shipyards. My mum comes from quite a good family in Singapore. Her dad was a magistrate. They came from sort of opposite ends of the spectrum, but at the same time, they both grew up in environments where there was no art. I’ve always wondered about the fact that they chose to do this. And for us, it was just normal. I thought everyone had painted steel girders in their front garden. Our friends would come around, and they’d be like, ‘What’s that?’ And we’d be like, ‘Oh, you don’t have big painted bell shapes in your front garden?’ 

As I said, I think it’s only really now that I understand the impact it had on me and my brother Johnny and how strong our visual sense is, purely from being surrounded by amazing art. But, look, when we were kids, the only thing we were told we couldn’t be for a profession was an artist, which people laugh at now. But our parents were like, ‘You’ll never be able to make a living doing this’.

Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
Works on paper and Head sculptures by William Turnbull; Kiss by Kim Lim (fireplace); Painting (cropped) by Tony Bevan.
Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull

How did your parents get by?

We lived in this big old house in Camden Square that my dad bought for 4,000 pounds in 1960. Now North Camden is super gentrified and full of artists. Our parents were the first artists there, and they bought the house because it had a side passage that they could use to get the art into the garden. It was a really frugal time. My dad ended up teaching to make money.

Bill was a pilot during the war; he enrolled in the air force when he was 17. He was open to travel. He went to Lucca, Italy, then to Ireland to train, then Canada, and then he was stationed in Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon at the time. Even though he was an officer, his colleagues still called him Jock, which is an interesting bit of British history. Even though they were fighting side by side, he was still an outsider. And he was always an outsider in his work.

When he came back, they wanted to keep him as a flight instructor because he was a good flight pilot. He was like, ‘No, I want to be an artist’. But he said that one of the hardest things was going from eating in the officers’ mess one minute to being a penniless, starving artist the next. 

Bill was really the first British modern artist. There’s no one more modern than my dad. He was in Paris after the war, with Giacometti and Brancusi and those guys. He was in New York in the ‘50s with Rothko and Newman. And those guys got big. We found all this beautiful correspondence from Rothko and Newman, among others. You can tell that they’re writing as complete equals.

Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
Kim Lim in her Camden Square garden studio with Trio and Kudah.
Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
Kim Lim in her studio with print wheel circa 1970s. Photography by Pip Beneviste.
Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
Kim Lim with Pegasus in the garden of her family’s home in Singapore. Photography by William Turnbull.

But he wasn’t always recognised as such by the art world. What was his relationship like with that community? 

One funny story about my dad involves this American critic, Clement Greenberg, who was one of the big—he was like the P. Diddy of the art world in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He was the guy, the champion of abstract expressionists around Robert Ryman’s generation. He kind of befriended my dad and came to our house for lunch. After lunch, they went into the studio so Bill could show him his new work. Greenberg started telling Bill what he should be doing. As I understand it, Bill sort of said to him, ‘Look Clem, tell me if you like it, tell me if you don’t like it, but don’t ever tell me what to do’. And either my dad threw him out, or Greenberg left in a huff because he wasn’t being accorded his due. But basically, Bill didn’t get a show in New York for 20 years after that and was kind of excluded from the art scene there.

Bill always said, though, ‘It’s the American collectors who sort of put food on the table in our house’. It was the Americans who understood his aesthetic because they were much more aligned. He used to say that British people don’t like abstraction when it comes to art; they prefer exact representation, which my parents were never really into. 

Your mother was selective about the events she would engage with and the spaces in which she’d show her work. How do you think she moved through the formal art world? 

Kim never wanted to be ‘othered’. She avoided taking part in shows that were gender- or race-specific, as she felt she was an artist regardless of gender or racial background. The only exception is the all-female Hepworth Annual show in 1978. The backstory there is that Kim was the only female artist in the 1977 Hayward Annual, among a who’s who of male British artists, and as a result was excluded from the 1978 show, though she was on the selection panel. 

Like William Turnbull, Kim’s legacy is only now being celebrated for the breadth and vision of her art. How has it been to witness that new appreciation and to have been part of it through your stewardship? 

Now, most of the curators we deal with regard my mom as an incredible pioneer—which she was—for race and for gender. She’s gone from complete obscurity to being collected by the biggest institutions in the world. And we’ve kept their legacy alive. There’s currently a show of my mom’s stuff at Hepworth Wakefield through June 2024. The National Museum of Singapore is doing a big retrospective this year. They’ve just included two of her pieces in permanent collections at Tate Britain. I think, other than Bacon, she’s the only artist with two works in there. I think both of my parents should be in Tate Modern, as well.  

Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
William Turnbull in his studio circa 1960. Photography by Kim Lim.
Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
William Turnbull in his studio circa 1961. Turnbull is known as a sculptor but regarded himself equally as a painter.
Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
William Turnbull in his Fellows Road studio circa 1950. Photography by John Deakin.

Do you think Kim often considered her own legacy?

When we were growing up, the wider British public considered art a bit of a waste of time, and being an artist wasn’t considered a ‘proper’ profession. Any creative in any field will be conscious of how their work will endure, but at the same time, I don’t think that’s why they did it. They made their art because that was what they did. It was actually a very pure and idealistic pursuit, unsullied by the commerce that has overtaken so may aspects of creative professions today.

Do you feel like your parents are finally getting the recognition they deserve?

For the first 10 years, it felt like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill with it periodically rolling back down over us. But we’ve got to the point now with both of them where there’s momentum. It’s been a really beautiful experience to be involved in keeping both of their legacies alive. And it’s not the only thing I do.

How does it not take over?

Well, because I can’t let it. I love my parents. I want to do them proud, but that’s just part of who I am. To be perfectly honest, I feel like I’m just getting going creatively. I’m harnessing everything that I’ve learnt in my life to try and put together some other stuff that I’ve been working on for a long time.

Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
Alex’s office in London. Left to right: Surfboard by Shawn Stussy with personalised inscription to ‘Alex Baby’; Metamorphic Venus by William Turnbull.

William Turnbull appears for a rare interview in your 2010 film, Beyond Time, which tracks his art career and legacy. How was it to work with your dad on that?

It was kind of funny because my dad wouldn’t have let anyone else make a film about him. That was just his generation; they didn’t talk about what they did. So, I had to kind of break him into talking about himself in order to tell his story. Only a 10th of what I learnt made it into the movie, and I’m sure that was still only a 10th of what he actually did.

What do you remember of your parents’ creative process? Did you ever witness them in the middle of a project?

We never really got to watch my father work, as his was a very private process. It was a little different with our mother. We would hang out with her in her studio when we were young, and she would get us to turn her etching press—a big old print wheel—and also give us etching plates to experiment with.

With your own creativity, how important was skating as a foundation for you and your friends?

Skating was one of the first times that people from all different cultures and walks of life came together. There were the kids from Kensington and Chelsea there with kids from Stockwell and Brixton. We were a bit too young for punk at the beginning, so this was like our little underground scene. And in the context of the new film I am making, skating was very important. 

Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
The London Chapter of the International Stüssy Tribe as featured in SKY Magazine, 1990. Left to right: Lord Barnzley, Mick Jones (the Clash), Michael Kopelman, James Lebon, and Alex Turnbull. Photography by Mark Lebon.

This was, of course, an American cultural export that arrived in the UK before the Internet and style magazines. Where did you get your information from?

At the time, you couldn’t buy American skateboard magazines in the UK, so someone like Jeremy Henderson would have a copy of Skateboarder magazine. We would all be down at the South Bank skating, and that copy of the magazine would be passed around, and you would get one week with it. You would spend that week gathering information and fantasising about what skateboard and gear you would have if you had the money.

Could you describe the culture shock of seeing those first Dogtown images?

That first article by Craig Stecyk changed everything. When we saw those grainy black-and-white pictures of Jay Adams and Tony Alva—it was just like, ‘Wow, look at these guys’. Up until then, skating had been very upright, clean-cut, very Beach Boys. And then came the Dogtown guys. It was just like punk, before punk. It was so aggressive and stylish, with torn jeans and Vans. It’s funny looking back, because I just interviewed Craig for my film, and now we’re good friends. That is mind-blowing for me.  

How much did those early skateboarding styles influence the global streetwear scene?

If you look at those Alva boards and ads, you can really see where the Stüssy aesthetic came from. It was only really when I started researching things for the film that I saw how influential it was. Those early Alva ads were so radical in terms of modern advertising. Nobody had done anything like that. This was years before magazines like The Face.

How did you get connected with the Stüssy tribe?

I was out in New York with two old friends, Jules Gayton and Jeremy Henderson, both ex-skate buddies. One day they took me to meet Paul Mittleman, who had been working for Stüssy, which at that point, was just two clothing rails in a warehouse in midtown Manhattan. We came back to London with the Stüssy gear on, and people were like, ‘What is that?’ because you just couldn’t get it. Then, Shawn Stussy came to London, and me and my friends James Lebon and Michael Kopelman took him to a club called Enter the Dragon where I was set to play. Later, I sent Shawn this mixtape that had a skit I’d made using the ‘Alex, Alex baby’ from an Alexander O’Neal record. Shortly after, Michael called to tell me Shawn had sent me some stuff. I go around to his house, and there’s this baseball jacket with ‘Alex Baby’ on it. So that was the start of the tribe.

Could you put into context how important Stüssy was in relation to the global streetwear scene that followed?

For me, Stüssy is the blueprint for the modern streetwear brand. Shawn was the first person to ‘cede’ stuff to DJs and people he thought were cool. Seems very obvious now, but at the time, no one had done it. Shawn, with the help of Paul Mittleman, created the tribe mentality. Before that, there were scenes going on in London, New York, LA, and Tokyo, but they were very specific to those places. 

Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
23 Skidoo, North London Polytechnic, circa 1981. Photography by Andrew Catlin.
Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
Drums in Alex’s office in London.

How did you go from skating to making music?

When we were skating, music was always a very important factor. Paul Simonon from the Clash was one of my early style icons, after Tony Alva. I actually started by playing the bass and then moved on to drumming in a few local bands like Table 12 and the Disco Zombies. 23 Skidoo started as a school band, and they were playing as a four-piece. They had a gig with the band Funkapolitan, and they asked me to play percussion.

23 Skidoo were ahead of the times in many ways. What music were you listening to at the time?

Fela Kuti, Grounation by Count Ossie & The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, James Blood Ulmer, The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Then all the electronic stuff from the UK, like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, and This Heat, who, for me, are still one of the most incredible bands ever. Three guys who just made the densest wall of sound. Charles Hayward, their drummer, had this set up that was like a sculpture. It was the most incredible piece of art, and he was like a tornado behind it. Incredible and super anti-commercial music, which is what we wanted to be. The worst thing anybody could say at the time was that you were commercial. Creative integrity was everything. It was really a time for outsiders. 

Of course, Neville Brody went on to design all those incredible 23 Skidoo covers, as well as the band’s logo. How important was that partnership?

I mean, look, Neville was already designing for the Fetish label at Rocking Russian, so it wasn’t like we chose him to do our covers. We were just very lucky. It’s incredible that we had the Godfather of Modern Graphic Design doing all the Skidoo covers. He became a good friend, and he did the design for the front cover of Beyond Time. That was a beautiful graphic, which I’ve seen replicated since.

Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull

23 Skidoo imagery on future covers reflected your interest in martial arts. When did that interest begin and how important has it been to your cultural life?

I got into it seriously around ‘81. I ended up training with this guy, Bob Breen, who became my teacher for 20 years. He is one of the top Jeet Kune Do teachers. Later, I saw the film Shogun Assassin, and the idea of a Ronin—a highly skilled assassin without a master—really resonated with me. So that is where the name for the production team and label came from.

This brings us to your latest film, Rise of the Streets, which traces the interaction of all these things we’ve talked about from fashion and music to skate culture. What are your main aims with the film?

What I really want to do with this film is talk to a lot of the people who aren’t widely known, but who were really, really important in the whole story of street culture. Making the film has been a ridiculous amount of work, but it’s kind of ready. Nothing like this has been done before. 

I’m a bit of an outlier. I didn’t go to film school and learnt to edit using U-matic machines when we made the early Skidoo visuals. The normal process is to have a concept, then to take it out to get it funded and partnered. I make my films myself alongside my editor, Peter Stern. It’s not the usual way things are done in the film industry, and that’s really the bit I get from my parents: the ability to have belief in what you’ve made regardless of the opinions of others. There’s also a diligence and attention to detail, making sure every aspect is exactly as you have envisaged it. That is inherited from them for sure. It’s how everything fits together. And I’m blessed to have grown up in all of it.

Apartamento Magazine - Alex Turnbull
Alex with Paddle Venus by William Turnbull.
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