Long-Hidden Collection of Paintings by Feliks Topolski

December 6, 2018 – An absorbing collection of works by acclaimed expressionist artist Feliks Topolski (1907-1989) can be seen by the public for the first time in a new, free exhibition at the Bank of England Museum until summer of 2019. “Feliks Topolski: Drawing Debden” will feature works from a set of 27 drawings and paintings by Topolski, commissioned by the Bank of England in 1957 to mark the opening of its Printing Works in Debden, Essex, at the end of the Central Line. 

War damage outside the Bank (11 January 1941).

War damage outside the Bank (11 January 1941).

The opening of the new Debden printing works in 1956 signaled a great leap forward for the Bank of England and one which it wished to commemorate. The following year, the Bank of England commissioned Topolski to create an illustrated record of the building, its staff and the intricate process that saw paper enter the east end of the building and emerge from the west side as finished banknotes.

Main production hall numbering section.

Main production hall numbering section.

Topolski’s work features panoramic views from the inspectors’ galleries, across the different stages of banknote manufacture. He captures a variety of printing techniques including both lithographic and intaglio printing, as well as numbering, cutting and examining the finished banknotes. As well as wider images of the production line, there are close studies of individual machine operators, sheet checkers and note counters at work.

Plate printing section.

Plate printing section.

While the pictures capture an atmosphere of concentrated industry, they also carry an air of social buzz around the new community that was growing in Debden at the time. After the Second World War, many people moved away from London’s Blitz-damaged East End to the new Debden housing estate, creating a ready-made workforce for the Printing Works when it moved to the area. Staff members are shown at leisure as well as at work, playing table tennis in the recreation hall and knitting, drinking tea and reading in the canteen.

Untitled. View of the production hall.

Untitled. View of the production hall.

The Printing Works’ distinctive building was designed by architect Sir Howard Robertson (1888-1963), along with structural engineers Ove Arup. It was designed specifically for the banknote-making process, enabling great improvements in efficiency. Topolski’s work records the vast arches of the Production Hall roof, created to accommodate the huge plate printing presses and still in use for the same purpose today. An unobtrusive inspectors’ gallery offered a grand view of the factory floor and improved the security of the operation, as well as giving Topolski a discreet vantage point from which to record the whole production line.

Main production hall - final examination area.

Main production hall - final examination area.

As well as bringing into the light a long-hidden set of Topolski pictures, the exhibition will include photography of Debden since the 1950s and examples of the individual notes under production. The original works will be displayed on rotation to preserve their details and protect them from light damage.

Recreation Hall.

Recreation Hall.

Acclaimed war artist and chronicler of London society and culture, Feliks Topolski was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907 and settled in Britain in the 1930s. In 1941, he joined the first Arctic convoy to Russia and, during WWII, travelled to Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, India, Burma and China. He saw Bergen-Belsen concentration camp two weeks after its liberation and attended, and drew, the Nuremberg Trials. In 1958, Prince Philip commissioned Topolski to paint a mural of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation at Buckingham Palace. Famous for his portraits of cultural figures, Topolski’s subjects included Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Alec Guinness, TS Eliot, Harold Pinter and Laurence Olivier. He also captured the subjects of John Freeman’s celebrated 1960s BBC TV interview series, ‘Face to Face’, including Tony Hancock, Edith Sitwell and Albert Finney. He died in London in 1989.

Other fascinating drawings shown in this exhibition include:

Untitled.

Untitled.

Plate printing section.

Plate printing section.

Litho Section.

Litho Section.

Detail of composite picture comprising of:- plate printing section - numbering section, final examination area - litho section, main production hall.

Detail of composite picture comprising of:- plate printing section - numbering section, final examination area - litho section, main production hall.

Numbering Section.

Numbering Section.

Detail of Lunch break outside canteen building.

Detail of Lunch break outside canteen building.

Canteen.

Canteen.

Final examination area.

Final examination area.

Bank of England Printing Works - 5.45 pm.

Bank of England Printing Works - 5.45 pm.

More information on this and other exhibitions can be obtained on the Bank of England Museum website.

Curator Jennifer Adams provides an introduction to the Topolski exhibition in this video.

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