Topolski Studio “…nothing affirmeth and therefore never lyeth…”

Insights into The Artist's Studio Museum Network's member studio: Topolski Studio

Lucien Topolski from The Artist's Studio Museum Network's Member, The Topolski Studio, explores the artist's studio for the Network's blog.


At the top of Feliks Topolski RA’s self-published bi-monthly broadsheet, known as The Chronicle, sits the quote “nothing affirmeth and therefore never lyeth”. It acts as a succinct guiding principle that frames Topolski’s approach to his role as an artist and chronicler, and his approach to observational drawing/reportage.

Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan courtier, poet, soldier, academic and all-round polymath who originally wrote it, was railing against three “imputations laid to the poor Poets”, and the arts generally:

  1. A person might better spend their time pursuing more “frutefull knowledges”.
  2. That poetry was the mother of lies.
  3. Poetry leads us astray, drawing the mind to the serpent’s tail of sinful fancies.

Sidney refutes all three criticisms, but most importantly for this little exploration of Topolski, is the matter of lying, for poets do not claim absolute truth, their work an exercise in reflection rather than assertive affirmation. This is where Topolski’s work sits; his immediate ‘reportage’ sketches trace the shape of current affairs, anthropology, culture, war, establishment and rebellion through the personal lens of experience and memory, lines that edge ever closer to the truth yet never making it final. Looking through Topolski’s Chronicle, published 24 times a year between 1953 and 1968, and then irregularly into the early 80s, feels like looking out of a window from Topolski’s mind, its faces, crowds and scenes retrieved and carved out in a flurry of charcoal lines. Bursting with energetic chaos at first glance, the drawings pull the viewer in closer as they make sense of them, working their own minds in the process to build an immediate sensorial impression of real-world events. 

Constantly on the move, Topolski strove to document and record the 20th century through his drawings, paintings and writing, and The Chronicle was his way of publishing those drawings in a world whose newspapers had only recently turned to photography almost exclusively as visual aides. What place did illustration now have as a means of understanding our time? The depiction of a ‘moment’ as opposed to an instant, fluidly capturing movement, character, relationships, the chaos of the crowd, all contained within the object of a finished drawing, present and therefore physically connected to the scene depicted. Remembering the human scale against the great flow of geopolitics, statistics and headlines. Common faces of the day to day, as well as those of the political and cultural elite. Whether it’s Castro’s Cuba, Thatcher’s Britain or the Vietnam war, Topolski’s hand is subjective in its style, thematic focus and interest, but strives for a vertical impartiality in its initial depiction, and later design and presentation.

"Topolski’s principles, powered by his own sense of tolerance, curiosity and desire to record for history, are what we as the charity responsible for the preservation of his legacy hold dear."

Topolski’s principles, powered by his own sense of tolerance, curiosity and desire to record for history, are what we as the charity responsible for the preservation of his legacy hold dear. After a few rocky years due to a lack of funding and direction, Topolski Studio is now emerging as a champion for reportage drawing, building trans-historical conversations between its collection and the work of contemporary reportage artists, through publications, educational work, exhibitions and residencies.

The archive itself is a treasure trove of visions of the 20th century, and forms the basis of all of the charity’s operations. Topolski’s studio, almost unbelievably still in its original railway arch location in Waterloo, currently hosts life-drawing classes, tours with the artist’s daughter and grandson and exhibitions. We hope to see an expansion of activities in the coming years, with a regular artist residency, partnerships with universities and exhibitions of reportage artists. Our long-term existence is under threat due to rising rents and the relentless commercialism on the South Bank, but we aim to provide an independent, relevant and constructive addition to London’s cultural landscape for as long as we are able.

Feliks Topolski was present and accessible, both in how he created and disseminated his work and as an individual. His legendary ‘Open Studio’ Fridays were open to all, himself holding court like a renaissance craftsman, doling out advice to younger artists, and generally providing a space in which people could feel open to discuss, dispute and share ideas. He was anti-institutional and apolitical, but moved amongst the down and out in much the same way as he did with kings. The Studio was often the place where they all moved together.

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