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.”