The Bank of England Museum displays a previously unseen collection of Feliks Topolski drawings that it commissioned and rejected in the 1950s
Feliks Topolski was already a well-known war artist and chronicler of London life when the Bank of England approached him to commemorate the opening of its Debden print works in 1957.
Widely known as an Official War Artist during World War Two and for his eyewitness art, the Polish Expressionist was tasked with documenting life at the newly-opened print works, but it seems his distinctive style didn’t sit very well with the bank’s employees at the time.
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“A note in our archives states the reaction of the staff was ‘generally unfavourable’,” says Jennifer Adam, curator of the Bank of England Museum, which is revisiting the works Topolski made on the spot in a new exhibition.
“Perhaps it wasn’t what they were expecting?,” she adds. “His sketches really capture a moment – people huddled over desks, frowning, even grimacing, as they’re checking banknotes. It’s not a traditional, formal portrayal.”
These raw, human elements are what makes Topolski’s artwork so compelling. While his sketches record the intricate process of making banknotes and the dramatic architecture of the modernist building, it’s the staff at work and on breaks – their peculiar expressions and postures – which catch the eye.
Topolski’s expressionistic style captures the workers’ features, which are sparsely drawn yet utterly recognisable. He also depicted both men and women in an evenly divided way.
“It’s unusual enough to see ordinary workers painted in a commission like this [rather than senior figures] but what makes it even more special is to see so many women among them,” adds Adam.
At the time of the commission, Topolski – who was born in Poland in 1907 – had been living in Britain for 20 years. His fortnightly-ish broadsheet journal, Topolski Chronicles, which ran from 1953 to 1982, depicted his first hand impressions of current affairs and offered a unique pictorial record of the twentieth century.
Over the course of his life Topolski travelled the world documenting global cultural and political events, such as King George’s silver jubilee, and as an Official War Artist, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the Nuremberg Trials, before moving onto Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the rise of the Black Panther Party.
He died in London in 1989, having compiled his illustrations into a monumental work of art: a 600-foot labyrinthine mural titled ‘Memoir of the Century’, which for a time was displayed in his former archway studio near the Southbank in Lambeth.
But in 1956 after opening the doors of its new works at Debden, the Bank of England was keen to mark the occasion, which signalled a great leap forward in the efficiency of the banknote-making process.
The building was designed specifically for purpose by Sir Howard Robertson and Ove Arup, with vast roof arches to accommodate the huge plate printing presses in the production hall, where they are still in use today.
As well as quiet, human moments of leisure time – staff members knitting, drinking tea and reading in the canteen – Topolski captured the hum of industry and the social buzz in the cavernous new building at Debden. Many of the workers had been bombed out of London and found themselves following the central line to Essex, forming a growing community around the print works.
Initially commissioned for three paintings, the bank later decided to purchase Topolski’s twenty-or-so preparatory sketches too, partly because it was decided that detailed drawings of the building could pose a security risk.
Adam says that displaying the sketches alongside the paintings allows us “to see Topolski’s process” and points to identifiable figures in his rough drawings, which have been fleshed out in the foreground of the finished paintings.
“Apparently he was never without a pen,” she says. “His art has a real immediacy as he was drawing life as it happens.”
Topolski made quite a few visits to the print works, recording the whole production line from the vantage point of the inspectors’ galleries. His images also capture a variety of printing techniques including both the lithographic and intaglio printing that took place at Debden, as well as the numbering, cutting and examination of the finished notes.
Displayed for the last 60 years in various back-offices at the Bank of England, these unseen artworks will be seen by the public for the first time alongside photographs of Debden and examples of the notes that were under production when Topolski was in residence.
Feliks Topolski at the Bank of England Museum, runs from October 1 until summer 2019.
Bank of England Museum
London, City of London
The Bank of England Museum tells the story of the Bank from its foundation in 1694 to its role in today's economy. Interactive programmes with graphics and video help explain its many and varied roles. Popular exhibits include a unique collection of banknotes and a genuine gold bar which may…