Life & Culture

Feliks Topolski: The Jewish artist friend of Prince Philip that time forgot

The artist was a fixture at every ceremonial event, so why did he fall out of the public eye?


He chronicled the last coronation for the nation, the Polish Jew who was a friend of Prince Philip and a fixture of London’s post-war society.

And were he around today, Feliks Topolski would no doubt have been back in the crowd, capturing every last flourish of the bandsmen as well as the street-sweepers and rough sleepers he would have considered every bit as important to portray.

Meanwhile, Britain has almost forgotten the artist who documented counter-culture and the Establishment alike while being welcomed into the heart of pre-war British intelligentsia by everyone from Jacob Epstein to George Bernard Shaw.

Topolski died more than 30 years ago and despite his many commissions from the government and the Palace and his thousands of portraits of almost every great figure of the 20th century from Gandhi, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to Dior, Elvis and Bob Dylan, he died on the sidelines.

What’s more, the artist who recorded the liberation of Belsen, the Nuremberg Trials and the dying culture of Yiddish theatre as well as dozens of royal events and celebrity visits, and whose work has been collected by the Tate, the V&A, the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, has not had a single retrospective.
Until now.

This is largely thanks to his 25-year-old grandson, Lucien Topolski, a historian who has pledged to restore the legacy of the grandfather he never knew by taking over the directorship of the Topolski Memoir charity set up to restore it.

To this end, he has reopened his grandfather’s studio in a railway arch in Waterloo.
And in collaboration with the Polish-born curator and art historian Julia Griffin, he is staging an exhibition of Topolski's art there, backed by Polish cultural organisations. It opened this week, just in the time for the coronation.

Griffin describes Topolski as “a foremost artist of the 20th century and the best Anglo-Polish ambassador of all time.

“No one has ever written an academic book about him and he refused to have a gallerist when he was alive,” she says. Lucien adds: “He was so well-known in his lifetime, but his work needs a leg-up in terms of recognition.”

Even Memoir of the Century, his grandfather’s monumental artwork that tells, you could say, the story of the 20th century, remains only partially intact following a £3million redevelopment intended to make it a permanent heritage site.

“My father, Daniel, worked incredibly hard to secure the future of his work, but since his illness and death, the main driving energy behind the project was lost,” laments Lucien.

As well as being the place where he produced his feted works, Topolski’s studio was also where he hosted his legendary bohemian Friday salons.

“Movers and shakers from Prince Philip and Mick Jagger used to turn up, as well as dancers from America, politicians from India, local businessmen, hippies, punks and tramps,” says Lucien.

One consequence of the lack of posthumous recognition for his grandfather’s oeuvre has been a shortage of income for new exhibitions, publications and other initiatives to keep the legacy of the relentless chronicler of his times alive.

Gifted to the nation and worked on for 14 years by the artist who climbed ladders in his eighties to paint its 20ft-high panels, Memoir of the Century was last shown in 2009 in the arch where Topolski made it.

Now its remnants can be found around the corner from Topolski’s studio in what is now called the Topolski Bar.

The venue’s website states the premises are dedicated to the work of the Royal Academician, but it shows pictures of drinks and events rather than the artworks that the nation might enjoy.

“Memoir of the Century wasn’t successful enough as a standalone museum, and the decision to convert the space into a bar and café unfortunately didn’t provide the kind of income that was expected to sustain the educational, archiving and conservation work envisioned at the Studio,” says Lucien.

Meanwhile, the bar still bears the panel depicting the artist’s birth in 1907 , in Warsaw, showing his maternal grandfather in tefillin and his great-grandfather in chains for protesting against Imperial Russia, the new rulers of a partitioned Poland.

Topolski arrived in Britain in 1935 to document George V’s jubilee, and then stayed for life, dazzled by the exoticism of royal ceremony rubbing shoulders with the common people.

“Seeing soldiers in bearskins and men in top hats rubbing soldiers with people of all classes speaking in different accents was a revelation,” says Lucien.

But the artist felt his own heritage keenly and wrote movingly of the Jewish-Polish State Theatre, when it came to London in 1957 .

He had, he said, once taken its folklore for granted, but now saw it with nostalgia. Excerpts from Topolski’s Chronicle, a fortnightly visual record of events that, printed on rough brown paper, emulated broadsheets of the 18th and 19th centuries, also feature in the show.

Its first edition came out in 1953 with a dedicated coronation issue. With 2,000 copies of every issue, it is arguably the most affordable limited edition artwork of all time put out by an artist whose work was held in national collections.

“He wrote that it should not be more expensive than a sip of whisky, a short taxi ride or a cheap cinema seat,” says Lucien.

Other highlights of the show include a previously unpublished portrait of Princess Diana from the family’s collection, a depiction of George VI’s funeral and rare photographs of the artist at work.

That work included the years Topolski spent transforming his drawings of the coronation into a massive palace mural commissioned by Prince Philip. During his time as a Vogue correspondent, the artist had also covered Prince Philip’s wedding to the Queen. It meant, that the two men developed a close relationship.

“Topolski even designed the menu for Philip’s bachelor party,” says Griffin.

The Polish-born Jew would also document the weddings of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones and also Charles and Diana’s nuptials — even as he was fighting the Establishment as a witness in the counterculture Oz magazine obscenity trial. (The longest obscenity trial in England’s history, it was triggered by a cartoon of Rupert Bear, the Daily Express mascot, on a sex trip).

During the Festival of Britain, The Cavalcade of the Commonwealth was displayed in an open arch of Hungerford Bridge.

It exemplifies his ability to develop his drawings into large-scale paintings without any loss of immediacy or passion.

It is also why this exhibition is being shown in a crowded studio in a railway arch, before moving to more conventional gallery space at the headquarters of the Polish Social and Cultural Association in Hammersmith.

“We felt it was important to showcase his work in the hidden London that was the nucleus of Feliks’s creativity,” says Griffin.

After the show, the space will be relaunched as the Topolski Reportage Studio, a home for changing exhibitions and artist residencies. A new quarterly lithographic Chronicle is also in the works.

“It will pull from the charity’s archive of his work,” says Lucien of the new periodical, which will also feature the work of contemporary chroniclers.

His grandfather, he points out, was concerned with issues such as decolonisation and post-imperialism, which still dominate intellectual discourse today.

“His visual and written insights need to be revisited so we can learn their lessons.”

As the monarchy is feted by a coronation with all the pomp and ceremony that first dazzled the Polish emigre when he arrived in Britain on a commission to record King George V’s Silver Jubilee, so is Feliks Topolski’s work.

The exhibition has been organised by the Topolski Memoir charity and the Granville-Skarbek Anglo-Polish Cultural Exchange, originated by POSK (the Polish Social and Cultural Association). The Exchange celebrates the creative contribution to British life by the Polish diaspora. The exhibition will be at the Topolski Studio in the Hungerford Arches next to the Royal Festival Hall until early July and will transfer to the POSK) Gallery at 238-246 King Street in Hammersmith from July 20 to September 1.

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