Andrew Roberts

Underneath the arches

Andrew Roberts on Feliks Topolski’s dramatic work of art, which is in desperate need of repair

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Andrew Roberts on Feliks Topolski’s dramatic work of art, which is in desperate need of repair

Adjacent to the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank under Hungerford Bridge are some Victorian railway arches which house one of the strangest, largest, most dramatic and most moving works of art in London, a painting that is moreover in immediate danger of disintegration and possible loss. Feliks Topolski’s ‘Memoir of the Twentieth Century’ is 600 feet long and between 12 and 20 feet high. Part autobiography, part historical narrative, part tribute, part satirical reproach, it is as enormous a statement on the last century as it is a vast physical entity itself.

Topolski, who was born in 1907, began the panoramic extravaganza in 1975, intending it as his considered comment on the course of the century that was then three quarters of the way through. He was still working on it at the time of his death in 1989. Few artists could tell the global story with as much authority; in a lifetime of travel he had met and painted scores of world leaders of note, many of whom — along with writers, actors, fellow-painters and intellectuals — populate this chronicle. He had also personally witnessed many of the iconic, defining moments of the century, and intended this painting to be his all-embracing interpretation of those events.

Although the painting was donated to the nation in 1984, it is in a very bad state of repair today — with tears, rips, water damage, and even a dead snail I spotted halfway up one canvas — and in desperate need of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant if it is to survive into our present century.

This it must do, as it stands as a unique testimony on the 20th century, from someone who knew very many of the leading protagonists in it. To walk along its 600 feet is to encounter King George V and a stern-looking Queen Mary, Augustus John, Nye Bevan, Graham Greene and Cyril Connolly at the Café Royal, George Bernard Shaw, Martin Luther King, Churchill and Boothby at the Coronation, Bob Dylan, Kennedy and Khruschev, Evelyn Waugh, Martin Luther King, Elvis looking like a Regency dandy, Chairman Mao, Nehru and Indira Gandhi (whom Topolski painted often), Bertrand Russell, Moshe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion, King Farouk, General Anders standing before the battlefield of Monte Cassino, Barbara Skelton (with whom Topolski had an affair), Lord Mountbatten in Life Guards uniform, Simon Callow, a sinister-looking Jinnah, Mussolini hanging upside-down from the garage hook, H.G. Wells, Olivier playing Henry IV, Nancy Astor, Leonid Brezhnev, Charles de Gaulle, the Black Panthers, Iris Murdoch, Jomo Kenyatta and many, many more. If the selection sounds idiosyncratic, that is because it is, which is part of its charm.

Nor is this an elitist, personality-driven portrait of the century; the huge canvas is also populated with Calcutta prostitutes, Polish Jews from the pre-war ghettoes, ill-treated Chinese coolies, beggars, wartime refugees, struggling art students, prisoners-of-war, pot-smoking hippies, Italian peasant women caught up in the second world war, London tramps and the poor bloody British infantrymen from the Burmese Campaign to D-Day. They are depicted with a compassion and a wry sense of the sheer tragedy that was so much part of the human condition during that cataclysmic century.

A Pole who well recognised the disaster that the century had wrought upon his country, Topolski has inserted much of his own life and experiences into the composition, as well as the famous people he knew and captured on canvas in the course of his 70 years as a painter. There is a reference to the death of his cousin, whom he killed in a shooting accident aged 12, a hint at the suicide of his actor father, and at the horrors visited upon Poland first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis and then by the Soviets again. His son Daniel’s birth in 1945 is recorded with joy, but so also is Pope Pius XII depicted as turning his back on the Jews in one of a number of searing political statements and indictments. The real-life contents of the wallet of a dead Wehrmacht sniper are glued on to the canvas at one point in the narrative.

The great political and cultural events of the century are recorded with uncompromising, unblinking honesty, in particular the Great War, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, Japanese atrocities in China, the piles of bodies at Belsen, the London Blitz (which he lived through), the Atlantic convoys, the Nuremberg trials (which he sketched), the transfer of power in India, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Queen’s Coronation, the Vietnam war (which he covered on a number of occasions), the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago (which he attended), Churchill’s funeral (ditto), the Cultural Revolution (which he saw at first hand), Brezhnev’s May Day parades, right up to the era of punk rock and the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. The idea that such a fascinating first-hand and first-class artistic account of the century might be allowed to fall into utter decrepitude should shock us.

After 25 years of being on display under the damp railway arches, a place that has only inadequate facilities for maintenance, Topolski’s masterwork is in immediate need of full-scale restoration. Fortunately, there is a project on hand to take advantage of the fact that the South Bank has seven million visitors a year, which will hopefully turn the ‘Memoir’ into both an educational resource as well as a profound statement on our recent history.

Access needs to be upgraded, a full-time curator needs to be appointed, a multi-media centre involving the use of film, video, music and theatre has been envisaged, but above all the painting needs to be protected from the dripping roofs of Hungerford Bridge railway arches. A new exhibition of the restored painting is badly needed, which in turn needs funding. Although planning permission was granted in January, the bid for £1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund is about to be decided later this month.

As Topolski’s son Daniel has put it, ‘It is a bold venture, but one which will add enormously to the cultural life of the local community, to the city and to Britain. My father made his home here because he found the British culture the richest and most exotic on earth. It would be neglectful if we were not up to the task of advancing his vision.’