By the early 1930s, Doris and Anna were sufficiently established to win a commission to paint murals on board RMS Queen Mary, then the world’s largest and fastest ocean liner and a byword for refinement. Articles on the Zinkeisens’ make-up habits (Anna) and penchant for drinking half a pint of cream a day (Doris) duly followed.
The sisters’ bread and butter, though — and the genre at which they shone — was portraiture, helped no end by their impeccable connections and considerable social flair. By now they had neighbouring houses in Regent’s Park, where there were a lot of parties, as Anna’s daughter, Julia Heseltine, recalls.
She remembers her childhood home as “very glamorous and stylish in an original way”. After World War II, Anna moved to a smaller house in South Kensington; the whole top floor was given over to her studio. “It was light and airy with two big windows,” Heseltine recalls. “A happy place with an atmosphere that people really liked: they always mentioned it.”
Doris, meanwhile, was more outspoken and dashing, Heseltine tells me. “The sisters were in many ways very different from each other: Anna, a touch more serious and reverential … but they shared a terrific sense of humour.”
One gets a sense of Doris from her break into set and costume design. In 1922, while still a student, she turned up unannounced at the offices of the impresario and actor Nigel Playfair, her portfolio in hand.
She must have made a good impression because he employed her for both his theatre productions at the Lyric and as interior decorator of his home. She went on to dress Laurence Olivier in his celebrated 1944 production of Richard III at the Old Vic (and was later invited to create his make-up for the 1955 film) and designed costumes for Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike and Anna Neagle. She also designed sets for Noel Coward’s After the Ball and This Year of Grace.
Anna, meanwhile, was creating posters for London Transport during the company’s golden age of design, and became known for her medical illustrations, which were used to train surgeons. Painting the intricacies of a kidney or an aorta would stand her in good stead for what came next. In 1939, she volunteered as an auxiliary casualty nurse for war wounded at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, where she also made drawings of traumatised flesh to aid doctors.
In a gorgeous 1944 self-portrait — completed in a disused operating theatre at the hospital, no less — Anna presents herself chin-up, sporting a modish, high-roll hairstyle and crimson lipstick. She holds her palette and a sheaf of brushes at her waist; her St John’s Ambulance Brigade bracelet circles her wrist. A contemporaneous painting titled Night Duty captures Doris, also in nurse’s uniform, her features poignantly strained.
In the early spring of 1945, Doris offered her services as a war artist to the British Red Cross and Order of St John as it moved into newly liberated Europe. Stationed in Brussels, she recalled being “sent all over the Continent to make sketches which I brought back to work out in my studio. If the distance was too great to travel by lorry, I went to the RAF just up the road from our headquarters and got a lift by air.”
In April that year, she became the first artist to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The shock, she said, “was never to be forgotten. The ghastly smell of typhus. The simply ghastly sight of skeleton bodies just flung out of the huts.” Even so, she stayed at the camp for three weeks until it was burned down, making a remarkable series of paintings. The experience would give her nightmares for the rest of her life.
In the late 1950s, first Doris, then Anna, left London for the peace of Suffolk. After building a studio in her garden, Anna settled into a routine that Heseltine summarises as “chores and dog-walking before breakfast, working on her paintings until about six, then a big gin”.
Though both sisters remained in demand (Anna painted portraits of Prince Philip and Lord Beaverbrook, among others), their lightsome, effervescent aesthetic, which had been a kind of visual salve in times marred by war and economic and social instability, came to seem increasingly outmoded.
Neither Doris nor Anna ever had much truck with various strains of European modernism, and one hardly dares consider what they thought of, for example, Francis Bacon or Andy Warhol. “Some they liked, some they thought rubbish,” says Heseltine, diplomatically, “but I think ‘live and let live, and don’t hurt’ was their life philosophy.”
The Art of Doris & Anna Zinkeisen will be published by Unicorn Press on December 1.
The Daily Telegraph