I don’t know how I have passed my life without seeing the Topolski Century. This masterpiece-dazzling, if farouche-occupies a couple of railway arches near Waterloo Station. Having now visited it, images keep recurring to my mind. Not so much a conventional painting as a series of decorated spaces, the Century is Feliks Topolski’s (1907-89) witness to the world as he encountered it.
He was never without a sketchbook, and could seize a moment with lightning speed. It is from his reams of sketches that the Century, begun in 1975, is made. Topolski went everywhere, knew everyone.
A Pole, he came to London to record George V’s silver jubilee in 1935. As a war artist during the Second World War, he was sent to every front, and was one of the first people into Belsen concentration camp. A friend of George Bernard Shaw, he was commissioned to record the great figures of the day-Ghandi, Evelyn Waugh, the Pope and would seek out interesting folk, from hippies to the Black Panthers.
In Egypt, he shared a mistress with King Farouk. The scope is astonishing, the educative potential huge. Alas, the existence of the Century is now threatened by developments by Network Rail. For shame.