Feliks Topolski liked to think big. The Polish-born artist spent 14 years creating a 600ft long, 20ft high mural under railway arches on London’s South Bank. His subject was nothing less than the 20th century, and how his life had intersected with its major events and significant figures.
This week London Mayor Boris Johnson officially reopened the Topolski Century gallery close to the Royal Festival Hall, following a two-year, £3 million redevelopment to create a venue that is set to become a landmark on the capital’s art scene.
“About half a million pounds has been spent on cleaning and restoring the paintings,” says the artist’s son Daniel Topolski, a writer and broadcaster and former Oxford University rowing coach. “Our conservator said it has been the most challenging and exciting task he has undertaken.”
Feliks Topolski was born in Warsaw in 1907. The first part of the work tells the story of his life. It includes a portrait of his grandfather, an Orthodox Jew. “Feliks used to see him performing ceremonial rituals,” says Daniel. “He found it all very exotic.”
By contrast, the artist’s mother and father, an actor, were not religious and Feliks grew up in a very liberal household. One tragic incident from his early life stands out in the work — the death of his 14-year-old cousin, whom he accidentally shot when he was 11.
“Her stepfather was in the army and had left his guns in the hall,” explains the artist’s daughter Teresa.
After studying at the Academy of Art in Warsaw, Topolski turned to journalism and began to cover news stories for various journals. In 1935, he was sent to Britain to report on King George V’s Jubilee celebrations, and decided to stay.
Although he wrote several books, it was his drawings that were in demand. “He was never without a pencil in his hand,” Daniel says. “Even when he was wandering around London he would have his sketchbook with him,” adds Teresa. “His eye and his sketchbook were one.”
The many publications he worked for included Picture Post and Tatler, as well as Condé Nast titles in America and CBS Television. “He was always travelling to where things were happening,” his son remembers. “His need to bear witness was his driving force.”
Once in Britain, the young artist kept some exalted company, as the painting records. In particular he was keen to meet the playwright George Bernard Shaw, whose larger-than-life portrait dominates the early part of the Century. He also knew the artist Augustus John, the Labour Cabinet minister Aneurin Bevin and the writer Cecil Day-Lewis, all of whom appear in Century. “Feliks was very charming, but he was also extremely pushy,” says Daniel.
During the Second World War, Feliks worked as an artist for both the British government and the Polish government-in-exile. “He was with the liberating troops at Belsen,” Daniel says. “He started sketching but then thought nobody would believe his drawings, so he took photographs too.”
Feliks covered the Nuremberg trials and, again, this is reflected in Century. On one side of the work are the pile of bodies he witnessed at Belsen concentration camp, where he realised “this could be me”. Beside it are portraits of the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Other episodes depicted include Indian independence and the American Civil Rights Movement. Both Martin Luther King and Indira Gandhi visited his home when in London.
Topolski worked on Century right to the end of his life — he died in 1989 — and was still climbing up and down scaffolding to paint it in his 80s.
“For him, an artist was a painter who produces great, memorable, long-lasting works,” says Daniel. “This was his legacy to the future. He called it a summing up.”