Portrait of an Artist

20 Literary Greats Gripe About Feliks Topolski’s Portraits (PHOTOS)

The artist Feliks Topolski painted portraits of 20 great writers for the Harry Ransom Center in the 1960s. The authors were not amiable.

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate (4)

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate (4)

Feliks Topolski (1907–1989) was a painter, caricaturist, illustrator, and muralist who chronicled some of the 20th-century’s most significant people and historical events. Born in Poland and centered in London his entire creative career, Topolski embraced modernism’s inventive freedoms but worked at the edge of its mainstream, thanks in part to his bold expressionist style that brought both acclaim and controversy.

 

In 1960, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin acquired a large, full-length portrait of George Bernard Shaw by Topolski, along with other illustrations. The Ransom Center then commissioned Topolski to paint portraits of 20 of the 20th-century’s greatest British authors.

 

The finished portraits of the “Twenty Greats” inspired a range of candid comments made by the subjects after viewing the results. The Ransom Center wrote to the 20 subjects in 1963 to request their permission to reproduce the portraits. Although most subjects granted permission for reproduction, many expressed distaste for the paintings with varying degrees of politeness.

 

Years later, F. Warren Roberts, then director of the Ransom Center, wrote consolingly to Topolski that the reaction of the sitters “was probably more of a compliment to your talent than anything else, because you seem to have a unique ability to extract submerged character traits and present them graphically.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

T.S. Eliot (1888–1965)

Oil on canvas, 1961

 

Eliot did not sit for this portrait. Topolski said: “I chanced on him in the ’50 on an underground train and began to sketch at a distance even before realizing who was this uncharming, haughty, black-homburged, black-coated city gent, attracted by his obvious rush-hour contrast with the subordinate and indifferent secretarial breed round him. This resulted in a largish painting-invention of a ceremonially red-robed Eliot in an honour giving scene.” Eliot strongly objected to the Ransom Center’s use of his portrait for an article in the Texas Quarterly.

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

William Empson (1906–1984)

Oil on canvas, 1960

 

Empson was one of the few “Twenty Greats” who admired Topolski’s portraits, writing to F. Warren Roberts: “Thank you for sending me a photograph of Topolski’s painting of me, and I gladly give you permission to reproduce it … I wish to take the opportunity of congratulating Texas University upon carrying out this generous-minded plan. I want also to make a suggestion. If it has not been done already, I strongly recommend that the University make an offer for at least one of the preliminary sketches for each painting. The sketches are full of witty comment and of the energy of Topolski’s line, and I expect some people will always think, as I do, that they are better than the paintings. They would at any rate be found interestingly different. This would be a fitting completion to a scheme which has already been carried out grandly.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

E.M. Forster (1879–1970)

Oil on canvas, 1961

 

“You have of course every right to have the portrait reproduced, and it is very courteous of you to consult me. I don’t myself think it is a successful caricature, but that is quite irrelevant.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

W. H. Auden (1907–1973)

Oil on canvas, 1961

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

John Betjeman (1906–1984)

Oil on canvas, 1961

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Cyril Connolly (1903–1974)

Oil on canvas, 1961

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Graham Greene (1904–1991)

Oil on canvas, 1961

 

Greene, thinking that Herbert Read was to write an article to accompany the publication of the “Twenty Greats” exhibition, agreed to have his portrait reproduced. Informed that Read had refused, Greene wrote to F. Warren Roberts: “It was only because my friend Sir Herbert Read was writing the article that I gave my consent to your using the portrait as an illustration. I am afraid I don’t like the work of Mr. Topolski so I would rather that you did not use the caricature if Sir Herbert Read is not writing.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)

Oil and acrylic on canvas, 1961

 

“Topolski’s mannerisms [are] 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.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

Cecil Day-Lewis (1904–1972)

Oil on canvas, 1962

 

“I have no objections to Topolski’s caricature appearing in the article you project—though I may assure you, privately, that I am not quite so corpse-like as the portrait suggests.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

Louis MacNeice (1907–1963)

Oil on canvas, 1960

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

John Osborne (1929–1994), John Whiting (1917–1963), Arnold Wesker (b. 1932) and Shelagh Delaney (b. 1939)

Oil on canvas, 1962

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

J. B. Priestley (1894–1984)

Oil on canvas, 1962

 

“I have just sent you the following cablegram: ‘All my family loudly protest against Topolski for both personal and aesthetic reasons.’ … I do assure you there is no vanity here. I have often been portrayed as a bit of a monster, but I have to be shown as my own kind of monster, just as an elephant must not be made to look like a rhinoceros. This caricature sketch-portrait is really quite a shocking job … If you are all crazy about it and insist on using it, then I will give in, but it would mean that my catalogue began with a quite shocking shoddy piece of art.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

Herbert Read (1893–1968)

Oil on canvas, 1961

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Bertrand Russell (1872–1970)

Oil on canvas, 1961

 

Russell wrote to F. Warren Roberts: “I should prefer not to have a photograph of this portrait by Feliks Topolski used. I do not care for the work of Topolski. When he asked to see me with a view to doing my portrait, I refused. I suppose this is the portrait he did in any case.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)

Oil on canvas, 1943

 

“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.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

Edith Sitwell (1887–1964)

Oil and acrylic on board, 1959

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C. P. Snow (1905–1980)

Oil on canvas, 1962

 

Snow wrote to F. Warren Roberts: “I have many vices, but physical vanity is not among them. By all means use the photograph of Topolski’s portrait if you want to.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

Stephen Spender (1909–1995)

Oil on canvas, 1961

 

“I hate the portrait, but if you must, yes.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

Evelyn Waugh (1903–1966)

Oil on canvas, 1961

 

“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 [sic] with Topolski’s drawing. You are therefore welcome to make any use of it.”

© Trustees of the Feliks Topolski Estate

Rebecca West (1892–1983)

Oil on canvas, 1961

 

West wrote to F. Warren Roberts: “It was more or less by accident that I was painted by Mr. Topolski. I consented only because a temporary secretary of mine had in my absence answered a letter from him with some rudeness, and I felt obliged to make amends by consenting to sit for him … But I really feel that as I am a small woman, weighing under 130 pounds, of inconspicuous appearance, it is rather much to accept a caricature, which, granted that it is a caricature, can only be a caricature of a woman who is both enormously tall and grossly obese, a sort of Gilray duchess…I hope that my refusal does not embarrass you in any way.”