Feliks Topolski’s dramatic depiction of Arctic convoy that relieved Arkhangelsk

Art and auctions, Exhibitions, Maritime Art, Maritime History and Museums — By on September 18, 2017 at 8:09 PM

Archangel. By Feliks Topolski.

Feliks Topolski’s dramatic depiction of Arctic convoy that relieved Arkhangelsk

By James Brewer

A magnificent depiction by the renowned artist Feliks Topolski of the first World War II Arctic aid convoy arriving at Archangelsk has drawn admiration on going on display in London.

Topolski recorded first-hand the excitement on ship and ashore over the arrival of the British mission to deliver essential supplies to a beleaguered Russia.

It was one of the seismic moments of the war on the Eastern Front, in the words of Andrew Sim, owner of Sim Fine Art, who is offering the signed and dated 1941 canvas as the signature item of two dozen Topolski wartime scenes and portraits.

Andrew Sim.

Mr Sim said of Archangel, which was the title given by Topolski: “This is the most important drawing I have ever had, and one of the most important drawings of the second world war.”

Topolski (1907-89) was at the forefront of the action which was “the tipping point of the war.” His intimate involvement contrasts with much other war art which is created after the event or behind the lines.

He packs dramatic action and the sense of a tumult of emotions into his panorama of the Russian port which along with Murmansk was a lifeline for Russia under siege.

Topolski had boarded the Llanstephan Castle in Liverpool in August 1941, one of half a dozen merchant ships to make the perilous journey, with an escort of three minesweepers, three destroyers and three anti-submarine trawlers.

The convoy brought a relatively small amount of relief by the standards of much larger operations that would follow, but its propaganda value was immense at one of the lowest ebbs of the war.

Streaming Paravanes.

Of Topolski’s imposing work – a 37 cm by 76 cm charcoal, watercolour, pen and wash sketch – Mr Sim said that in terms of dramatic representation and quality, “it has just got everything.”

The prolific and versatile expressionist painter trained in art in his native Warsaw and as an artillery officer before leaving for Italy and France. He moved to Britain in 1935 on being commissioned to record King George V’s silver jubilee. Although he did not become a naturalised Briton until the mid-1940s, he was chosen for important war commissions.

In an article in the Sim Fine Art catalogue Holding the Line, Jonathan Black, senior research fellow in the history of art at Kingston University and author of books including Winston Churchill in British Art – the Titan with Many Faces, writes that Topolski’s time in London left him with an enduring admiration for the great traditions of British draughtsmanship.

By July 1941, Topolski had been sub-contracted by the War Office to the Polish government-in-exile in addition to working for the popular magazine Picture Post.

Viewing at 20/21 British Art Fair

Dr Black writes: “Topolski’s characteristically energetic line communicates the excitement and anticipation of arriving into Archangel. Topolski was impressed by the Royal Navy – the senior service – which insisted its men should be neatly turned out however foul the weather. This is evident in his portraits of Royal Marines and able-bodied seamen on the convoy.”

Codenamed Dervish, the first Arctic convoy left Iceland on August 21, 1941, arriving in Arkhangelsk 10 days later. The six merchant ships supported by an oil supply vessel carried tanks, crated Hawker Hurricane fighters and ammunition. RAF pilots intending to train their Russian counterparts were on board, as were Topolski and two journalists, on the Llanstephan Castle.

This convoy escaped attack, but the toll on later missions was appalling. Between August 1941 and May 1945 there were 78 Royal Navy-escorted convoys to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. A total of 85 merchant ships and 16 warships were lost, and the human cost was more than 3,000 naval and merchant seamen. Some 1,400 ships did get through.

Gun deck

From northern Russia, Topolski flew to Moscow where he was briefly arrested for sketching in a café without a permit. In September 1941, he travelled to Samara (then known as Kuibyshev) on the Volga, where a Polish army under General Wladyslaw Anders was gathering. He soon returned to the Llanstephan Castle with 200 Polish airmen for an escorted journey to Britain.

The Llanstephan Castle of 11,300 gt, had been launched in August 1913 at Fairfield in Glasgow for Union Castle, and after service in World War I went on to carry passengers for East and South Africa – there are postcards showing cricket and a sack race on deck during peacetime voyages.

Sim Fine Art, based in Kent, showed an extensive selection of works by Topolski and other war artists at the 20/21 British Art Fair, at Mall Galleries, London, from September 13-17. Examples of pen and wash studies on show included Streaming Paravanes (a paravane was a mine-deterrent and anti-submarine device), Polish Seaman, Gun Deck, and The Bridge: Compass Points.

The gallery specialises in pictures with social history content and has a track record of discovering lost pictures of cultural significance.

Apart from Topolski drawings in the Imperial War Museum, the artist is under-represented in the museum system, says Andrew Sim, adding that in 2015, the Tate acknowledged this anomaly by purchasing the wartime masterpiece Germany Defeated from the Sim holding. “This recognition of Topolski’s importance has allowed us to put together one of the most significant selling exhibitions of the artist’s wartime output since WWII.”

Polish Seaman.

Most of the pictures derived from the artist’s experiences on the Eastern front (unique among British-based war artists) have not been exhibited since they were first gathered together for Topolski’s 1942 book Russia in War.

Underlining the sheer variety of Topolski’s wartime career, Sim Fine Art has an astonishing oil painting which describes his being thrown into the air by a bomb in Soho, while sketching a bomb crater. Kenneth Clark, who ran the official war artists scheme, commissioned him to record the impact of the Blitz on London, “but his work did not have the central place it deserved in the panoply of official British war art,” contends Sim. Dr Black says that Clark admired Topolski for channelling the British tradition “but giving it a vehemently Expressionistic twist, filtered through the searing imagery of Goya at war.”

The trio of books produced by Topolski to document his activities, asserts Mr Sim, “are the most comprehensive visual record of WWII produced by any artist. Topolski was arguably the greatest visual documentarist of the mid-20th century.”

The Bridge. Compass Points

The port of Arkhangelsk remains hugely important both for ocean and river traffic and is now navigable year-round. In October 2016, an agreement was signed by Arkhangelsk interests with a Beijing-based company to construct a deep-water port 55 km north of the city, to handle 30m tonnes of cargo annually by 2030.

Photos of works on this page are courtesy of Sim Fine Art. www.simfineart.com

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