Topolski at the Ransom Center

British Studies Seminar, The University of Texas at Austin

Larry Carver, Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts

The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78712


I chanced on him in the fifties on an underground train and began to sketch at a distance even before realizing who was this uncharming haughty, black-homburged, black-coated city gent, attracted by his obvious rush-hour contrast with the subordinate and indifferent secretarial breed round him. This resulted in a largish painting-invention of a ceremonially red-robed Eliot in an honour-giving scene.

Feliks Topolski paints the Twenty Greats

© Frank Herrmann

The painter is Feliks Topolski; the Eliot is T.S.; and the portrait, a gorgeousriot of color, is one of the “Twenty Greats,” a collection of Topolski’s wonderfully playful renderings of the twenty great living writers of England that The University of Texas at Austin acquired in 1962.

Born in Warsaw in 1907, Topolski, painter, stage designer, and in G. B. Shaw’s words, “amazingly talented draughtsman,” came to London in 1935. In carrying out an assignment to record the jubilee of King George V, he found a new home and went to work, publishing his first series of English impressions, The London Spectacle 1935. Wyndham Lewis, who wrote the preface, found The London Spectacle "full of wit and keen observation, and…agreeably sub-acid.” For the next fifty-four years, Topolski, in Graham Greene’s felicitous assessment, would serve as “a talented anthropologist…conducting a little regular field-work in these islands and [laying] bare, as with a scalpel, the essential whatever-it-is of Britain’s most cherished institutions.” Topolski was quickly accepted into a talented group that included, among others, Greene, Waugh, J.B. Priestly, Anthony Powell, and William Empson. He published his work in magazines—Night and Day, Punch, and Lilliput—and in some thirty illustrated books.

The war years consolidated Topolski's reputation as a draughtsman. An official war artist, he made drawings of the Blitz, and experienced it first hand. The day before his studio was hit, sending him to the hospital for four weeks, he "entertained Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Shaw to lunch" at his studio during an air-raid, an episode amusingly captured in an article in Lilliput. He went on to publish three wartime books of his drawings, Britain in Peace and War, Russia in War, and Three Continents. He followed allied armies into France and Germany, witnessed the freeing of the Belsen concentration camp, and attended the Nuremberg Trials. From 1953 to 1979, he published Topolski's Chronicle, 348 numbers containing 3,000 drawings, a work that Joyce Carey described as “the most brilliant record we have of the contemporary scene as seized by a contemporary mind.” In 1959, the Duke of Edinburgh commissioned Topolski to paint two huge murals for Buckingham Palace, sixty-four feet of panoramic compositions that now hang in a gallery leading to the State Rooms.

A man of great charm, Topolski made friends easily, one of his most important friendships was that of George Bernard Shaw.

In 1938, Shaw “summoned” the young artist to his rooms in Whitehall. “I went in the spirit of a pilgrimage to a godhead." Soon Shaw was asking his “Dear Filipovsky” to illustrate Geneva, In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, and Pygmalion.

Though obviously holding the son in great affection, father Shaw was not adverse from giving his son the occasional thumb on the head. When Topolski sent Shaw his preliminary drawings for St. Joan, Shaw replied in a postcard: "I am shocked. St. Joan is sacred. She must not be burlesqued. You of all men must not touch her. Your speciality is monstrous burlesque. Keep it for Don Quixote or Rabelais. The drawings will do for either, with a little alteration."

In a later note on the same subject, Shaw writes: "Do you know the lithographs of Delacroix, illustrating Faust and Hamlet? Some day you may persuade a publisher to issue a folio St. Joan illustrated by your monstrosities in the same fashion. That would be a magnificent work of art, especially if you had outgrown your damned scriggles and could be gravely monstrous throughout, like Delacroix."

When it came to drawing Shaw himself, the sage tells "Dear Feliks, If I were not married I might let you debunk me for the fun of it. But my wife, who admires everything you draw except your pictures of me, would object. So I think that project must be abandoned unless you repent and beautify me, which would be very dull and fatal to your reputation."

Shaw, however, was to relent, allowing Topolski to draw “endless likenesses." The result was three full-length portraits and the publication in 1946 of the book, Portrait of G.B.S. Shaw accompanied Topolski at an exhibition of one of his portraits at the Leicester Gallery in 1944, commenting to a reporter: "It's a wonderful Topolski; but it makes me look 20 years older. This gives me a new reason for living until I'm as old as that."

I have spent some time on this relationship, because it's through Shaw that the Ransom Center and Topolski were to become forever linked. With the book dealer Lew David Feldman acting as middleman, a full-length Shaw along with the original illustrations of Geneva and Pygmalion came to The University in 1960. In a handwritten letter of September 8, 1960, "Lew" tells "Dear Harry" that "we have just come from the restorer's and we are engaging to send down the Topolski GBS--it is breathtaking! It will dominate any room you place it in--if we charged 10,000.00 for it--it wouldn't be too much."

From these acquisitions and Feldman’s enthusiasm for Topolski’s work sprang the “Twenty Greats.” On June 4, 1960, Feldman wrote to Ransom: “We think this a stroke of genius! Let us commission him to do 20 portraits of our 20th Century best all from life--he [Topolski] balks at doing these any other way. His usual charge for portraits is 4-500 guineas (12-1500 dollars) but with the challenge of this group we can work him down to a more reasonable figure." President Ransom was not so sure, and he asked Warren Roberts, Director of the HRC, to investigate. In a memorandum dated August 19, 1960, to HHR from FWR on the subject of "Feliks Topolski and Feldman's Portrait Plan," Roberts opines that "Topolski seems to be a competent and will known painter, although his work tends to the caricature." He goes on to question "Mr. Feldman's original list," arguing that" I don't think we should commission portraits of persons who are deceased," adding that "some of Mr. Feldman's choices are not so important as others." " My list," he tells Ransom, "includes 14 American names and 13 British names. If the plan is carried out, we would be lucky to make arrangements with ten of each, hence we would allows some room for failure."

In a follow up memo on "Feldman's Topolski scheme," Roberts suggests to Ransom that: "In as much as Topolski is a competent and well-known artist, I suggest that we should reserve judgment for the present on the matter of Topolski portraits in general with a view of obtaining two or three representative portraits…." "Any how," he adds, "I feel we should not close the door definitely on Mr. Feldman’s Topolski activities.”

Mr. Feldman, however, felt the door was closing, causing him a good deal of anxiety. On November 18, 1960, he wrote to Ransom: "Your reaction to our suggestion that you acquire the entire projected portrait gallery by Topolski of the 20th century Literary Great, has been rather mixed. Our recollection was that you were heartily in favor of the idea, and we proceeded on this basis."

Feldman had made a deal with Topolski, but now he was not sure he had a market! He redoubled his efforts to convince Ransom, citing the artistic and monetary value of the paintings while trying to make Ransom feel that the project was already underway in part at his, Ransom's, instigation. "We are completely convinced," Feldman writes," that this will prove to be an extraordinarily interesting and important achievement, in fact we are so convinced that we have drawn a letter of agreement with Mr. Topolski, and we have authorized him to proceed in this matter, completely upon our own responsibility." He goes on to explain to Ransom that "We have already written to T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forester requesting their co-operation in lending themselves to Mr. Topolski's portraiture. The other two that we have authorized him to proceed with are Edith Sitwell and Evelyn Waugh." And then there is always money, Feldman writing that "From the viewpoint of simple economics, we must say to you that in our considered opinion this well prove to be (if completed) a $50,000 property, and was proposed to you at the modest figures of $20,000."

Negotiations would go on for the next two years. Topolski continued to work, but the list of sitters and the terms of any agreement remained in flux. Would Mr. Topolski be able to exhibit the collection in London before it came to Texas? No. If not in London, how about New York? No, again. In February of 1962 Topolski, seeking publicity, leaked, much to the chagrin of those at Texas, the story to The Sunday Telegraph. The article with three photographs of Topolski at work on the portraits in his studio began:" Feliks Topolski has been commissioned by an American organization to paint 20 distinguished writers. By which American organization? 'There,' says Topolski, 'is the "drama." I just don't know.' The commission reached him through a man who had come over here to buy manuscripts." And the article continues:" Topolski's Top Twenty aren't actually Topolski's choice. The list of selected authors comes to him in installments from across the Atlantic."

The leak was strategic, an attempt to keep the Texas interests alive. In the meantime, Feldman dangled carrots that he hoped Ransom and Topolski would find appetizing. In a letter of February 16, 1962, Feldman assured Ransom:" Since you have first refusal at $20,000 and obviously, since we shall continue to honor our arrangement until we have enough evidence to provide you with a sufficient guide for final decisions, we shall inform you of developments as they may occur. Tentatively we have suggested to Topolski that if the English collection winds up happily for all parties concerned, we shall most likely commission him to do another twenty, this time of the American scene."

As late as May of 1962, Ransom and Roberts continued to have their doubts. A letter from Topolski to Feldman on May 11 gave an updated list of sitters with assurances that the project would be finished by the end of the month. It went on to suggest that Sir Herbert Read, who had seen the portraits and expressed admiration for them, should write the introduction to a proposed catalogue of the exhibition. The letter was forwarded to Roberts, and it is not clear whether it was the updated list, the projected time of completion, quality of the work, or the proposed exhibition that bothered him. But he wrote to Ransom that: "This apparently contradicts Bill Todd's impressions. Do you suppose it might be possible to get an independent appraisal of the Topolski project? We might be able to write confidentially either to J.B. Priestley or Stephen Spender.”

Artist and book dealer were to prevail. I do not know the date when the deal was actually sealed, but in August, Feldman wrote to Roberts that: “The collections of FELIKS TOPOLSKI’s paintings of (20) 20th Century great writers left New York by Railway Express Friday, August 24, 1962.”The total cost: “$20,381.45.”" Delighted with the news of the inevitable and predictable!" Topolski laid out plans to come to Austin to give "one, two, or set of three talks…," talks that "should cover the contemporary art scene and my 'stand' within it; my own development; and the theme of these portraits, both as a stage in my own art and as a tale of the subjects." Then too there were plans "to use the J.B. Priestly portrait as a frontispiece to a descriptive catalogue of an intended exhibition" and publication of the portraits in the Texas Quarterly. And though as Roberts wrote to the artist, " Dr. H.H. Ransom, who is the dynamic genius responsible for the acquisition of the paintings," " is very favorably inclined " to both trip and publication, neither was to take place.

The reasons were two-fold. To the end, Ransom remained bemused by what Topolski had worth and what he had bought. He turned to Donald Goodall, Chairman of the Art Department, who assured his President that “This is the least pious, and I must say most witty sequence of pictures on the contemporary great with which I am familiar.” Somewhat reassured, the HRC began to seek permission from the sitters for possible publication. The responses put the project to rest. Three of the twenty never replied; six refused outright; one, Louis MacNeice, never got his letter; only nine consented, one, Stephen Spender, with reluctance.

Roberts wrote to Topolski that he could not share the actual replies, but he did go on to summarize:

"T.S. Eliot definitely indicated his displeasure at the thought of the paintings being reproduced…C. Day Lewis assured us he was not 'so corpse-like as the portrait suggests.' E.M. Forster said that he did not think it a 'successful caricature.' C.P. Snow prefaced his permission…with the statement that he has 'many vices, but physical vanity is not among them.' Evelyn Waugh noted that he ordinarily discourages photographs because of the risk of being recognized in public, but that 'this danger does not arise in connexion with Topolski's drawing.'

Graham Greene 'would rather that you did not use the caricature.' Aldous Huxley found the mannerisms 'aesthetically distasteful and wholly incompatible with portraiture or even with caricature of a psychologically significant kind.' J.B. Priestly did not want to have the portrait used for 'both personal and aesthetic reasons.' Herbert Read was non-committal insofar as permission to use the portrait was concerned, but the tone of this letter indicated that he would prefer not to have it used. Bertrand Russell wrote, 'I should prefer not to have a photograph of this portrait by Feliks Topolski used.' Rebecca West felt that the 'caricature' was unrecognizable."

If any consolation was to be found, it was in the response of William Empson, the only one to give his consent "enthusiastically."

Ever resilient, Topolski, at least years later in his 1988 biography, Fourteen Letters, had his own explanation:

"The University of Texas planned a book of my portraits, and presumably following some code of academic publishing chivalry, sent out smallish black-and-white photographs (entirely false as visual information) to each of the 'subjects'. A few reacted quite violently: but only from amongst the oldest (similarly to GBS some years earlier); a reaction caused, plainly, not by vanity, but by a preserved/treasured mirror-view of themselves, still existing with the help of grimaces and wishful memory--challenged by what to me was a living face, but to them the kept-at-bay face of disaster--in short, the feared evocation of death."

Over the next decade, Topolski, while trying to sell other works to the Ransom Center, would worry about the fate of his "Twenty Greats". In a letter of March, 1970, Warren Roberts writes that:" Your package on America, Shem, Ham & Japheth, Inc.', sounds like a marvelous idea. I can imagine that the drawings and the manuscripts would make a wonderful exhibit. The only difficulty at present is that our budget is completely gone…." In August of 1971, Roberts assures the artist that "Your paintings certainly are not hidden in the basement." He goes on to remind Topolski of the sitter's reactions and why publication never came about. But then Roberts who had come to admire Topolski's work--in the next year he would ask to purchase a painting or drawing, a gift for his wife on their anniversary--gives the artist a telling defense of these controversial paintings:

"Their reactions [i.e. the sitters] was probably more of a compliment to your talent than anything else, because you seem to have a unique ability to extract submerged character traits and present them graphically. Perhaps one day we can take up this idea again."

Feliks Topolski died in 1989, his funeral service taking place in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a Representative of the Duke of Edinburgh in attendance with Simon Callow giving the address. His son and daughter, Daniel and Teresa, maintain his London studio and welcome visitors on Friday evenings just as their father used to do. A few doors away, open Monday through Saturdays, 5:00 – 8:00 p.m., is Topolski’s colossal “Memoir of the Century,” huge panels in color chronicling the century’s events and major figures. His second wife Caryl continues to live in the apartments at Whitehall, the entrance way graced by a very large portrait of George Bernard Shaw.

Has the last chapter in "Topolski at the Ransom Center" been written? Feliks himself did not think so. In a handwritten note, probably in 1971, Topolski thanks Roberts for "Your charming reply to my grumpy letter," and goes on to close with: "As to your library chronicle--I admire it, but hesitated to subscribe--my portraits not having been recorded by the University at all in all these years. Even now you seem not to be able to have 20 plates made--a tiny expense. However, I will die one day and, my renown may shoot up enough to have you reconstruct my studio in Austin at a high profit to my inheritors." The story goes on.

Larry Carver, Teresa Topolski and Daniel Topolski at an open studio in December 2001

© Jill Springall

Return to Current, recent and permanent public shows