Feliks Topolski: Drawing Debden, sketches from the Printing Works, Bank of England Museum, October 2018

IMG_3381The last time I visited the Bank of England Museum it was for an exhibition on the new £5 polymer note in 2016. I distinctly remember thinking that I would never get used to the slippery plastic feel of the new note. But only two years later I can hardly recall what the original felt like.

The march of time is forever upon us, what we take for granted as an everyday practice can very quickly melt away into an historic past we struggle to recall. It is often left to artists to capture a moment and zeitgeist – pastels, pen and ink recall a time that begins to seep from memory. The latest exhibition on at the Bank of England Museum is ‘Feliks Topolski: Drawing Debden, sketches from the Printing Works’, and capturing a moment is exactly what he does so well. 

IMG_3393I was expecting to learn about the creation of a banknote but not expecting to see a 1950s post-war life captured so engagingly. Topolski (1907-1989) was a Polish expressionist artist, born in Warsaw he moved to Britain in the 1930s. As a war artist he travelled extensively during World War II from Egypt, to India and China. He also attended and drew the Nuremberg Trials.

The Bank of England Printing Works at Debden, 5.45pm clocking off for the day.

The Bank of England commissioned Topolski to commemorate the opening of their new Debden printing works in 1956. The current exhibition at the Bank of England Museum brings to the fore Topolski’s long hidden collection of paintings and drawings and it is a wonderful dip into a 1950s world of work at a time when London was climbing out of a post-war depression.

Panorama: the Main Production Hall, 1957. The process began with blank paper at one end of the hall, to the right of this drawing, and ended with completed banknotes at the other.

The printing works was designed by architect Sir Howard Robertson and structural engineer Ove Arup specifically for the bank note making process. Topolski’s sketches capture the vast production halls, factory floor and labour intensive production lines.

You can’t help but sink into a 50s era when you see the swoop of a bouffant hair style or the impression of dangling kitten heel. I love the sense of concentration Topolski’s work conveys as staff would check thousands of notes per shift.

In January 1941, the road outside the Bank of England was struck by a bomb. Topolski captured the scene after the initial damage had been cleared and traffic was moving again. However the Ministry of Information still considered the picture too sensitive, and barred it from public display during wartime.

Curator Jennifer Adam tells me this manual practice of checking for errors continued right up to 2010. Now computers have replaced the human eye as a means of rooting out mistakes. Topolski is showing us a way of working that no longer exists, a landscape as distant and becoming as forgettable as his startling painting of a bomb damaged streetscape outside the Bank of England in 1941.

At Debden there was an on-site library and reading room and a recreation hall for breaks.

It is not just a world of work that the artist captures so well, but the play that ran alongside it. Debden was a new community, the housing estate created to move people out of a Blitz-damaged East End. This community was looking to a new brighter future, one that worked and played hard in what seems an endearingly gentler time.

Canteen, 1957.
I love the multi-tasking in this sketch.
The drawing, which shows banknotes flicking rapidly through the women’s hands, gives a sense of the intense concentration and speed needed for the task. Each examiner was expected to check at least 15,000 notes per day.

I love the sketches of staff at leisure playing table tennis, knitting and drinking tea. There is one picture of a woman eating, a fork in one hand, her other hand stirring her tea with a manual dexterity and focus it is hard to differentiate from a sketch of women who were expected to check 15,000 notes per day.

Quality control – Every single note was hand-checked for errors. This image shows women checking green £1 notes.

The Bank of England is a little gem, free to visit and I highly recommend dropping by to see the Topolski exhibition. There is something so charming but a little wistful about the world he portrays, falling from memory but here now to be celebrated. Industry,  hard work and an optimism for a future that had to be brighter than the horrors of war.


Feliks Topolski: Drawing Debden, sketches from the Printing Works is on at the Bank of England Museum. Free, 1 Oct 2018 – Summer 2019. For opening times please see the website – https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/museum


Lovely interview here about Topolski by his daughter Teresa – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjkwFcQKQXQ

Some great pictures here of the Debden Printing Works from RIBA – https://www.architecture.com/image-library/ribapix.html?PageIndex=2&keywords=debden%20printing%20works


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