There is one letter from Feliks Topolski to Ruth Borchard, from 1963. It reads:
‘Your charming letter can be dealt with only in person. Why don’t you come here at any time after 11 a.m. Friday next? My studio is an Arch under Hungerford Bridge, facing the Artists’ Entrance of the Festival Hall.’
This 1959 black crayon drawing was made when Topolski was around fifty-two years old. A brilliant evocation above all of the process of hand-to-eye co-ordination, it shows his body facing the sheet of paper in front of him, his upraised hand hard at work, his head turned askance towards his mirrored self-image. Drawn with especial emphasis, his pupils seem to take on a life of their own. With no hint of a smile, his look is neither morose nor solemn but one of utmost disinterested curiosity.
Variations of line and tone reveal a Daumier-like range and fluency: as, for example, in the sparse strokes conjuring up the hair on top of his head, and bolder strokes describing the hair down the back of his neck; in the chiaroscuro around his eyes, nose and mouth; and in the muscular sculpting of thumb and forefinger manipulating black crayon.
Topolski characterised his own drawing in general as being
‘of a seismographic inspiration: my hand/eye react instinctively and selectively and knit together the elements which may be gathered… if the “high” of tension and the response of the hand are inexplicably right, the notes (best in batches) “come off”.’
A 1968 charcoal self-portrait shows Topolski’s face full-on, with quizzical eyes burdened with self-knowledge, every fold of flesh, every mark of woe seismographically inscribed.
Born in Warsaw in 1907, Topolski studied at the Warsaw Academy of Arts. In 1935, he came and settled in London. In London’s Café Royal, he befriended many figures in the arts, politics and Society, some of whom he would later portray.
Feliks Topolski died in 1989. His life and work have been memorialised by a permanent exhibit, Memoir of the Century, a labyrinthine installation chronicling key icons and events of twentieth century cultural and political history – sited in what was his studio within two gloomy Victorian arches under Hungerford Bridge, now part of London’s South Bank Centre.