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Selections from Feliks Topolski: Portraits of Britain’s Twentieth-Century Literary Greats

By Harry Ransom Center

The exhibition Felix Topolski: Portraits of Britain’s Twentieth-Century Literary Greats, runs through December 31, 2006.

The Ransom Center acquired Topolski’s full-length portrait of George Bernard Shaw in 1960 and shortly thereafter commissioned the artist to paint a portrait series of great living British writers and playwrights. The commission of “Twenty Greats” eventually included the portraits of W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Ivy Compton-Burnett, T. S. Eliot, William Empson, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNiece, John Osborne, J. B. Priestley, Herbert Read, Bertrand Russell, C. P. Snow, Stephen Spender, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, Rebecca West, John Whiting, Arnold Wesker, and Shelagh Delaney. This exhibition brings together, for the first time, all 20 stunning and controversial paintings from the original commission.

Here are some of the portraits featured in the exhibition and the stories behind them.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950),<br />Oil on canvas, 1943<br />94 1/2 x 51 inches.<br />© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950),
Oil on canvas, 1943
94 1/2 x 51 inches.
© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate.

George Bernard Shaw
In 1938, Shaw “summoned” Topolski to his rooms in Whitehall. “I went in the spirit of a pilgrimage to a godhead.” The eminent playwright and his “Dear Filipovsky” became friends and collaborators, Topolski illustrating Geneva, In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, and Pygmalion.

When Topolski asked to sketch Shaw, the sage, however, responded: “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 relented, allowing Topolski to draw “endless likenesses.”

The result was three full-length portraits and the publication of Portrait of G.B.S. (1946). Shaw accompanied Topolski to an exhibition of this portrait 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.” The Ransom Center acquired the portrait in 1960.

Dame Edith Sitwell

Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964)<br />Oil and acrylic on board, 1959<br />72 x 48 inches.<br />© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate.
Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964)
Oil and acrylic on board, 1959
72 x 48 inches.
© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate.

Poet and critic, Sitwell was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, and privately educated at her family home in Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire. A prolific poet, she rebelled against late Victorian verse, introducing and experimenting with new verse forms and rhythms, her Elegy for Dead Fashion (1926) being one example. Topolski made drawings of Sitwell for the television program, Face to Face (1959). Topolski’s practice, as with other interviewees, was not to “show my portrait drawings to my sitters, so that I draw unhampered by clogging restraints; and the same rules my portrait painting, whether it be done from drawings-and-memory or straight at sittings.” Sitwell, however, did see a reproduction of this portrait. As Topolski tells us:

“With Face to Face they [the sitters] would see the results on the screen, myself out of their reach, as it were; but, with portraits proper, one way or another the fateful confrontation would have to come.

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.”

Hearing that Sitwell disliked the portrait, Topolski wrote that “you are a person I admire and would hate to distress… I assure you my only prompting to do these was a sort of elation at this marvelous theme—yourself.” Sitwell replied that she admired Topolksi’s work, “the one exception…was your portrait of me—and that was for personal reasons.”

The hunchback reminded her of the orthopedic device her parents made her wear for “a slight curvature of the spine,” “a sort of Bastille of iron, from my shoulders to the soles of my feet….” Topolski reassured his sitter that “To me you have the rarest PRESENCE… This aura of yours (I see it now in retrospect) must have been what led me to my painting: fragility, therefore style, therefore true authority.” The story ended well: “I wrote to her. And her reply cleared the air, friendly invitations following.” The painting is one of several Topolski did of Sitwell. Another is in the collection of the Polish National Museum, Warsaw.

Aldous Huxley
Novelist and essayist, Huxley was born in Surrey and educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. Topolski described the author of Brave New World as “an apparition—stretching from floor-to-ceiling in this indifferent Kensington room—of idealized Englishness… an amalgam of postures/gestures, cross-leggednesses, clad in a miraculously cut white flannel suit cum very male jewellery cum a thick-knotted, clearly made-for-him, Union Jack-crossed necktie… And this visual epitome of fleeting-away English-led civilization speaks beautifully out of that near-past. There is a conversation but I, engrossed in what I see, draw by the dozen, barely involved.”

Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963),<br />Oil and acrylic on canvas, 1961,<br />43 1/2 x 55 inches.<br />© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate.
Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963),
Oil and acrylic on canvas, 1961,
43 1/2 x 55 inches.
© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate.

Huxley disliked the portrait, finding “Topolski’s mannerisms aesthetically distasteful and wholly incompatible with portraiture or even with caricature of a significant kind… This painting seems to me even less satisfactory as a caricature-portrait than the drawing.”

Huxley died shortly after writing this letter, and according to Topolski, “at some gathering, Lady Huxley, the wife of Julian his brother, rushed at me distressed and almost accusing: that ill-informing black-and-white photograph of my painting of him sent routinely by Texas University had shaken him terribly, and—she insisted—had contributed to his demise.”

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966),<br />Oil on canvas, 1961,<br />40 x 32 inches.<br />© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate.
Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966),
Oil on canvas, 1961,
40 x 32 inches.
© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate.

Evelyn Waugh
Novelist, travel writer, and biographer, Waugh, born in Hampstead, London, and educated at Hertford College, Oxford, is best known for his satirical novels, including Decline and Fall (1928) and The Loved One (1947), his World War II trilogy, The Sword of Honor, and Brideshead Revisited (1945).

In sitting for Topolski, Waugh’s “reputedly undiversified rudeness did not materialize… at his Wiltshire home… I was received genially… And in an equally genial mood, we met again in London. In consequence no razor-sharp incidents spice my memory; only helpfulness: doffing in bowler-hat-on-off for my drawing—the result, two largish paintings into which his sanguinariness possibly seeped with a lot of red-in-the-face.”

Waugh’s response to the Ransom Center’s request for permission to use the portrait in an article is classic: “In general I do what I can to prevent photographs of myself getting into the press for fear of being recognized or accosted by strangers in public places. This danger does not arise in connexion with Topolski’s drawing. You are therefore welcome to make any use of it.” Topolski’s other “largish” painting of Waugh hangs in the Polish National Museum, Warsaw.

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