Gallery: Painting a portrait of cafe society

The Zinkeisen sisters were the toast of London's caf� society throughout the 1920s and 30s.

Andrew Clarke

By Andrew Clarke

The Zinkeisen sisters were the toast of London's caf� society throughout the 1920s and 30s. Now art historian Philip Kelleway is hoping to restore their reputations with the launch of a new book tracing their glittering careers.

VIBRANT, electric and vivacious The Zinkeisen sisters were The Bright Young Things of the art world during the hedonistic days of the jazz age. They were the darlings of caf� society painting themselves and each other to great acclaim as well as capturing friends and lovers on canvas.

They were celebrities in their own right - much in the same way that Damian Hirst and Tracy Emin are now. The pair exhibited throughout the 1920s and 30s at the Royal Academy earning important high profile commissions such the opportunity to paint murals in the first class dining room of the Queen Mary and to design costumes and scenery for West End shows including those for Noel Coward.

Older sister Doris painted her fianc� theatre and film director James Whale and worked for such prestigious friends as theatre producer Charles Cochran, star Jack Buchanan, film star Anna Neagle and Elsa Lancaster - while Anna painted society figures, members of the medical profession and produced designs for Wedgewood which landed her a prestigious prize at the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

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Amazingly, for such high profile artists these go-getting siblings are now largely forgotten by the art-loving world, their fashionable, romanticised portraits dubbed out of style by the newer, hard-edged artists of the 1950s and 60s. However, East Anglian author Philip Kelleway hopes to revive their reputations by publishing their story and their art in a new book.

“Although they deliberately sold themselves as sisters, it was part of their image, they were definitely different as people. Doris was certainly more vivacious whereas Anna was a quieter person and this certainly comes through in the pictures. And as the years went by, and certainly during and after the war, they developed along very different lines.”

After the Second World War both sisters relocated from London to the comparative serenity of Suffolk - Doris set up home in Badingham, just outside Framlingham and Anna in Woodbridge.

Both continued their careers, including some prestigious advertising and portrait work for people like LNER and ICI, but never recaptured the publicity that fuelled their inter-war work. Philip believes that part of the reason for that lies in the fact that they were content to live a quieter life in Suffolk away from the opinion formers in London and just as importantly the experience of the war had sobered them as individuals. Anna had done voluntary work for The Red Cross, including the detailing of war injuries, while Doris was a war artist and covered the discovery of Belsen concentration camp. “She said that the sights, sounds and indeed the smells she encountered there never left her - they haunted her for the rest of her life. Certainly the pictures she produced about the liberation of Belsen are some of the most powerful of her life.”

As a young man Philip was a regular visitor at Doris Zinkeisen's Badingham home and was entranced by the vivid portrait which hung in her hallway. It depicted a striking young woman with a 1920s hairstyle that was letting a colourful silk kimono slip from her shoulders.

Later he was amazed to discover that the picture was a self-portrait of the old lady that he came to visit Doris Zinkeisen. This then triggered research and a fascination with Doris and her sister Anna - which led to the publication of his lavishly illustrated book on the pair - Highly Desirable: The Zinkeisen Sisters and Their Legacy.

At the beginning of their careers, both sisters concentrated largely on portraits which they submitted to the Royal Academy's annual exhibition in London. They hit the art world with a bang in 1921 when they, along other female art students, had their work hung in the Royal Academy exhibition in preference of “more mature painters” as some of the outraged conservative papers raged.

The Sunday Express chose to follow up the row by interviewing the Zinkeisen sisters and depicted them as hard-working talented young women, whose only crime was the fact that they were women.

The story was headlined “Who are these flappers of the Academy schools?” which neatly describes how the public viewed these young upstarts.

It soon became clear that neither Doris nor Anna were privileged dilettantes just playing at being artists. New work and soon high profile commissions came tumbling in and Doris was quickly lured into London's theatre world where he playful, slightly outrageous nature could be let lose designing sets and costumes for straight plays, musicals and her favourite - risqu� revues.

As with any artist one branch informed the other and once she got into her stride, there was a distinct element of theatricality to her portraits. The sitter is made to look like a star, their clothing, hairstyle and their pose is given that heightened glamorous edge which is often found in the publicity stills of the day.

Despite their individual successes, Philip says that in for the best part of 20 years, the sisters were always regarded as a double act. A belief fostered by the fact that some of their best work came about when painting each other. In today's language the Zinkeisen sisters were a brand. In many ways they were not too dis-similar to the Elliot sisters in the 1990s television series The House of Elliot. Whereas the Elliots' toiled away in the fashion business, the Zinkheisen's were focussed on the world of art.

For Philip, the writing of the book has been a labour of love - a chance to put across the art and tell the story of the lives of two of Suffolk's forgotten artistic legends.

“In another life I was a pig farmer in Badingham, I was a young man and I met Doris through my parents really. I just used to pay social calls. I used to enjoy my visits to Doris. After she died in 1991, I sought of lost contact with the family. Eventually I sold up the farm, moved on but more recently I made contact with Doris' son who lives in Kent. He was great, very friendly and he gave me access to a lot of Doris' original correspondence and various cuttings and articles which had appeared over the years.

“Just as importantly I also got to know Julia Heseltine, a well established artist in her own right, who is the daughter of Anna Zinkeisen and she helped me piece together the other side of the story.

“They were both extremely kind because it is very difficult to let a comparative stranger rifle through family papers and snap shots and basically burrow through someone's life and family history.”

What Philip uncovered was a fascinating story of a pair of talented go-getting girls who were not prepared to let their sex deny them the right to earn a living from their art. “The problem with a lot of art history is that it is written by men. Tastes are still largely dictated by men and in the 1920s with the age of liberation in the age after the horrors of World War I still fresh in people's memories Doris and Anna were not prepared to let themselves get sidetracked by other people's expectations.”

Letters, magazine articles and even a mention in Sir John Gielgud's memoirs testify to the fact that the sisters didn't sit back and wait for the lucrative commission just to drift in, they went hunting for them.

Doris, in particular, was keen to get into theatre design and set about tracking down London impresario Sir Nigel Playfair. He wrote in his book The Story of the Lyric Hammersmith: “Doris Zinkeisen… came to see me unannounced with a portfolio of drawings under her arm… I was able to see at once that she had a great talent for stage decoration.” Sir Nigel dispatched her to Liverpool to supervise all the scenery for the Liverpool Repertory Company where she made an immediate impression on the young John Gielgud.

He wrote in his memoirs: “Playfair had just discovered at Liverpool Doris Zinkeisen. Miss Zinkeisen was very good looking and wore exotic clothes. She was at that time engaged to James Whale, a tall young man with side whiskers and suede shoes. These two made a striking pair at the dances that Playfair used to invite the company…”

Philip Kelleway said that these extracts showed that Doris, in particular, was very much at the centre of London theatrical life. Very quickly she was designing posters, and costumes to go along with sets. Revue was her favourite form of work because it allowed her imagination to run riot. Her costumes for the showgirls were deemed to be very racy with the first use of sticking plaster to attach thin strips of costume material to obscure nipples from the audience gaze.

With Doris working extensively for both Charles Cochran and Noel Coward in the West End, it wasn't surprising that she was soon approached to supply costumes for the fledgling film industry. She struck up a particularly successful working relationship with producer/director Herbert Wilcox and worked extensively with his wife Anna Neagle who was at the time swiftly establishing herself as Britain's favourite film star.

“In order to bolster their reputations still further Doris designed a fabulously glamorous and very attention grabbing translucent dress for Anna Neagle for use in the film The Little Damozel. Anna so loved it - and the reaction it got - she used it again for stage appearences,” said Philip.

With Anna landing commissions from society figures and their talent for self-promotion, it was not surprising that when the Queen Mary was launched in 1936 to reclaim Britannia's supremacy of the seas that both Zinkeisen sister were commissioned to supply murals for the first class dining room and the Verandah Grill.

“It is also not surprising that apparently Doris supplied a small nude self-portrait of herself as Venus. Having seen it I am sure it is her but it's a nice story and very in keeping with her character,” Philip laughs.

For both sisters the war provided a rude interruption. Anna worked for the British Red Cross while Doris was a war artist - both sisters were profoundly affected by what they experienced during those six years.

After the war they moved to Suffolk, settled down to some extent, raised families and worked in a quieter way. Anna's daughter Julia, who grew up to become a leading artist in her own right provided the subject matter for many of their best later portraits. They both continued their commercial work branching out into surrealist, stylised areas of art for advertising and painting portraits for ICI. Anna continued her society commissions including one of The Duke of Edinburgh for RAF Fighter Command, an aborted commission to honour King George VI at Windsor as well as developing a highly sought after collection of flower paintings.

Philip Kelleway is pleased that at last the sisters can now reclaim their place in the history of British 20th centuey art. “These highly talented sisters had a fabulous career and it seemed a crying shame that they have now been largely forgotten by the outside world. For me it was just a labour of love to tell their story and to assemble some of the best examples of their work. Hopefully they will now be rediscovered.”

Highly Desireable: The Zinkeisen Sisters and Their Legacy is published by Leiston Press, price �35. ISBN 978-0-9559673-4-4. It is available from bookshops or mail order from Kelleway Art Books, PO Box 3443, Norwich NR7 7NF