Feliks Topolski was a painter, draughtsman, caricaturist, illustrator, and set designer. He was born on 14 July 1907 in Warsaw, and died on 24 July 1989 in London.
Between 1927 and 1932, Feliks Topolski studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw principally under the guidance of Tadeusz Pruszkowski. He was a founding member of the Painters’ Lodge, an offshoot of the previously-existing Free Painters' Lodge. At the same time, he was a cadet at the Artillery Officers’ School. In his student years, he contributed his illustrations to the Cyrulik Warszawski (editor’s translation: The Warsaw Barber), a satirical journal and he painted a mural in the hall of the Institute of Promoting Modern Art. He also illustrated Julian Tuwim’s Polski Slownik Pijacki (The Polish Drunkard’s Dictionary).
In 1935, he went to London to provide illustrations of King George V’s jubilee for Wiadomości Literackie (Literary News). He spent the rest of his life in the UK, where he quickly gained recognition and popularity in the British artistic milieu (he took British citizenship in 1947). He set up his workshop near Waterloo Station, where visitors can see an exhibition of his works today.
In 1938, George Bernard Shaw asked Topolski to illustrate a new edition of his books – he said that the Polish artist was ‘an astonishing draughtsman – perhaps the greatest of the impressionists in black and white.’ One year later, Shaw published his play In Good King Charles's Golden Days illustrated by Topolski, which brought him to the spotlight and assured his recognition with the British public. His friendship with the writer resulted in a series of portraits in the Portraits of GBS album.
In the pre-war London, Topolski worked as a correspondent for Wiadomości Literackie and he contributed to many British journals. During World War II, he was a war correspondent. He documented evolving events by drawing, and thus, he brought journal illustration to the status of a true art. He always drew his works on the run, quickly and on-site and he never redrew them. Thus, they can be treated as quick, yet always clever and authentic notes. Topolski was appointed the official war artist by King George VI.
Topolski worked as a reporter on many battlefronts, he painted battles involving British troops, military convoys, and the formation of Władysław Anders’ army. During the Battle of Britain, he stayed in London to document the war struggle. He was injured in 1942. He was always at the heart of the action – Illustrated London News sent him to Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and later to Asia, where he visited India, China, and Burma. He joined the convoy to Archangelsk and he reached Kuybyshev – he captured his audience’s imagination with his illustrations from all around the world.
He accompanied the Polish II Corps and documented the arrival of the allies to Rome. He also witnessed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and observed the Nuremberg trials, during which he drew portraits of the Nazis in the dock. Topolski’s drawings appeared in the press, and they were then released in albums. During the war, he published three such collections: Britain in Peace and War (1941), Russia in War (1942), and Three Continents 1944-45 (1946).
In recognition of his talent, he was entered into the Royal Academy of Arts. He kept travelling the world to be at the centre of social conflicts and wars – to witness history in the making. In India, he illustrated the eve of the British rule. He was invited by Pandit Nehru, the first prime minister of the independent country to draw The East (1949-50), a mural. His Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was commissioned by the Maharaja of Jodhpur and still decorates the interior of the Presidential Palace in New Delhi. He witnessed the independence struggle in Malaysia and Indochina and visited the United States, and after coming back to Great Britain he painted the immense Cavalcade of Commonwealth mural commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain.
His patrons included such famous personalities as Prince Philip, who commissioned him to paint a colossal wall painting depicting the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (the artwork is in the so-called Lower Corridor in Buckingham Palace). The painting is composed of fourteen parts, each of which is over a metre tall. In total, the mural is nearly thirty metres long and it is the longest artwork in the royal collection. Topolski often portrayed lords and members of the British royal family, like a true court artist.
After 1953, he also started documenting the post-war reality in his Topolski's Chronicle and Memoir of the 20th Century, both of which are presented in his old workshop under the arches of Hungerford Bridge in London. He would say:
I simply have a passion for experiencing my life with a pencil. I try to submit myself to the event I witness, and my hand starts doing its work.
Created for over two thousand subscribers, his Chronicle was lithographed on big sheets of cheap brown paper. He published continually it between 1953 and 1979 with the help of Krystyna and Czesław Bednarczyk, the owners of the Poets’ and Painters’ Press.
In his Chronicle, he illustrated the most important world events, he also painted over a hundred personalities, writers – Zbigniew Herbert, George Wells, Graham Greene, politicians – Harold Macmillan, Winston Churchill, and many other famous individuals. The Chronicle was his medium for presenting his art and thoughts about people, politics, and events. Extraordinarily energetic and slightly satirical, his graphic style perfectly suited both landscape frames and precisely-modulated details. The album won an enormous popularity as an artistic account of nearly thirty years of human history. The Chronicle was made up of three thousand drawings. It was exhibited in New York, Moscow, Köln, Hamburg, and Tel Aviv, and also published in parts in the United States, Poland, Italy, Denmark, and Switzerland. Topolski thus described his work:
I keep drawing and my drawings immediately enter my chronicle, which travels the world with me, and in consequence, covers nearly the entire planet. And let’s say these drawings are a material that I collect for my paintings. Since the material is enormous and I’m captivated by size, so I paint many enormous wall paintings.
He was a renowned portrait artist. He used tangled dynamic lines to bluntly portray his models, at times in an almost caricatural manner. Drawing was his expression of choice. He usually worked with pencils, crayons, and ink. He drew using a thick entanglement of lines, which made up exquisitely characterised personalities and scenes. He always drew his works on the run, quickly and on-site and he never redrew them. Thus, they can be treated as quick, seemingly chaotic, yet always clever and authentic notes.
Between 1961 and 1962, Topolski was commissioned by the University of Texas in Austin to paint the portraits of twenty living distinguished British poets and writers: W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, T. S. Eliot, William Empson, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, C. Day Lewis, John Osborne, J. B. Priestley, Herbert Read, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Spender, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, and John Whiting.
He painted murals in Carlton Tower Hotel in London (1960) and St Regis Hotel in New York (1965). He worked with many journals, like Night and Day, Punch, The Illustrated London News, and Liliput. He also illustrated more than thirty books.
In the mid-1970s, Topolski cut down on his globetrotting. At that time in his workshop under Hungerford Bridge, he started his work on his biggest and the last artwork, Memoir of the 20th Century. He used acrylic paint on large cardboard and plywood pieces to create a true labyrinth with a visual chronicle of a century on the walls of his workshop. It is a unique artwork, a one of a kind account of the most important events of the 20th century. By 1989, he had created 200 linear metres of the 6-metre-high painting filled with hundreds of scenes, characters and faces, like portraits of Ksawery Pruszyński, and Generals Sikorski and Anders.
Called the ‘greatest artistic chronicler of our times,’ Feliks Topolski left a rich legacy: countless drawings, illustrations, murals, and paintings. He left his workshop to the city of London. In 2004, on the initiative of the Estate of Feliks Topolski foundation, restoration of some of his paintings which were damaged began. The year 2009 saw the opening of the Feliks Topolski gallery under Hungerford Bridge. The event was a part of the opening of POLSKA!YEAR – the year of Poland in Great Britain. The institutions which supported the enterprise were, for example, Century Heritage Lottery Fund, Southbank Centre, London Development Agency, the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and the Polish Cultural Institute London.
Originally written in Polish by Ewa Gorządek, Dec 2010, translated by AP, 28 Nov 2017