Drawn to show the world as it was: the women who became official war artists
The forgotten women artists of the Second World War inspired Caroline Beecham to write her novel, Eleanor’s Secret. Here she reveals the stories of the real-life painters, including Argyll-born Doris Zinkeisen, behind the fiction
Scottish artist Doris Zinkeisen was one of only a handful of women who worked as an official war artist during the Second World War.
When the War Artists’ Advisory Committee was set up in 1939 to make an artistic record of Britain at war, 400 artists took part in the scheme; the majority were men, and of the 37 who were given fulltime contracts, there was only one woman, Evelyn Dunbar. Along with Dunbar, Zinkeisen is the inspiration behind my novel, Eleanor’s Secret, which follows Eleanor Roy, as she too follows her dream of becoming a war artist. In wartime Britain women were taking on the majority of roles that men had previously held, yet that wasn’t reflected within the WAAC, or in the art establishment and like Zinkeisen, Eleanor soon becomes immersed in a turbulent new world trying to balance the social upheaval of war with her own desires.
While Eleanor’s story is inspired by real events, Zinkeisen’s extraordinary life story reads like the work of fiction. Born in Rosneath, Argyll in 1898, Doris attended the Harrow School of Art before gaining a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools, which she attended in 1917 with her younger sister Anna, also a painter. But it was Doris who gained popularity as a successful painter, commercial artist and then as a celebrated theatrical designer. Her realist style initially made her a popular portraitist and she quickly became a recognised society painter, leading to opportunities as a commercial artist and illustrator. She created a number of posters for the London Underground, railways and shipbuilders, including murals on board the RMS Queen Mary that can still be viewed on the ship at its mooring in Long Beach, California.
By the late 1920s Zinkeisen had exhibited at the Royal Academy, gained awards and been elected a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters but whatever success she had enjoyed as a painter was soon surpassed by her career as a stage and costume designer. Starting in the early 1920s on stage design, she worked on productions with Cole Porter and Noel Coward in London’s West End as well as costumes for musicals on Broadway before collaborating on a number of films with director, Herbert Wilcox, through the 1930s.
Zinkeisen had trained as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse during the First World War, so at the outset of the Second World War she joined the St John Ambulance Brigade as a volunteer, nursing Londoners through the Blitz, and reportedly working at Paddington Hospital in the morning and then painting the experiences from St Mary’s Hospital in the afternoon.
Like Ethel Gabain, Laura Knight, Mary Kessell, Dorothy Coke, Evelyn Gibbs, Dora Meeson, Kathleen Guthrie and Stella Bowen, the only other women artists amongst the 400, Zinkeisen was to remain on British soil to record events on the Home Front, even though she too had the desire to go overseas. Although women’s positions had changed since the First World War and they were amongst a new group of women taking control of their lives – often sacrificing personal lives and family for the sake of professions – they were still
Years of nightmares were a haunting legacy from her experiences of entering Bergenbelsen just after its liberation in April 1945
competing with men. Even Evelyn Dunbar, the only female given a full-time commission, was initially engaged by the WAAC to produce pictures of the Women’s Voluntary Service. Similarly, those previously mentioned eight women artists were also contracted to record life on the Home Front; in the form of morale boosting watercolours of the WAAF and the Land Army, lithographs of the evacuation of children, and oils of well-known landmarks after bombing raids.
But unlike all but one of the other women artists, Zinkeisen eventually saw action; at the end of the war she was finally commissioned by the WAAC as a war artist for the North West Europe Commission of the Joint War Organisation of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John, where she was to record their post-war relief work. In the same way that male war artists had travelled with the troops making sketches of the conflicts before returning to studios to develop their work, it was Zinkeisen’s turn to journey with the JWO into the newly liberated areas to sketch and paint the repatriation of prisoners of war.
The opportunity of finally realising this ambition didn’t come without its costs; years of nightmares were a haunting legacy from her experiences of entering Bergen-belsen just after its liberation in April 1945. Zinkeisen faced 10,000 unburied corpses and 60,000 starving prisoners, and in her autobiographical manuscript she later claimed that: “the shock of Belsen was never to be forgotten”. Disturbing paintings like Human Laundry, Belsen 1945 were produced during the three days she spent there; images of emaciated survivors being washed by fat German prisoners and Belsen, April 1945, a bleak portrayal of withered corpses.
It is perhaps because of these appalling horrors and conflicts that women artists were kept away from the front line, instead recording events on the Home Front; albeit their encounters of mass destruction and civilian casualties were often no less disturbing than the war on the battlefields. But the artists were also able to give an impression of life for those contributing to the war effort away from the front line and produced images that held a propaganda value of their own.
It was to be expected that this exposure would make an impact on the war artists and their work, and it was noted by critics that Zinkesien’s war paintings differed in tone and colour from the brighter palette of her earlier society paintings; now she used the muted colours favoured by other war artists. During the war her work appeared in Women, one of the four booklets in the Second Series of War Pictures by British Artists in which the introduction reads: “After what she has done in this titanic struggle, will she not guard what she has gained, and to Man’s effort add her own? If she can do what she has done in war, what may she not do in peace?”
After the war Zinkeisen continued to work as an artist and theatrical designer. She had a family and later retired to Suffolk where she died in 1991, aged 92. The paintings from her time as a war artist are now held by the Imperial War Museum, the museum of the Order of St John and the Red Cross museum.
At the end of the war when the WAAC was dissolved, nearly 6,000 artworks had been produced and while a great deal of attention is still paid to the numerous pictures recorded by artists such as Edward Ardizzone, Paul Nash, Anthony Gross and the nearly 400 other male artists, we are less familiar with the contribution of these extraordinary women; artists with a unique perspective and portrayal of war. And even less so with the legacy of the multitalented and pioneering Doris Zinkeisen.
Doris Zinkeisen in her studio in 1936 working on one of her paintings for the grill room of the Queen Mary, main; Zinkeisen’s painting Human Laundry, Belsen, April 1945, top left; author Caroline Beecham, above
● Eleanor’s Secret by Caroline Beecham is published by Ebury Press, priced at £7.99, out now