Finding Eadie, Media & Reviews

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.

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