Andrew Roberts

Underneath the arches

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

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.

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