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

The Scotsman - - Features -

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

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