• Thu. May 30th, 2024

Family ties:

ByDelilah Walter

Mar 1, 2021

Artwork of the week: ‘Doris Zinkeisen’ (1929) analysed by her great-granddaughter

The image I have in mind when I think about this painting is a recurring one of my mother who, year after year, would drag me and my siblings to the National Portrait Gallery in a desperate attempt to entertain us while making her crucial visit to the BP portrait awards. Before we went to the exhibition, we always did a round of the standing collection, working our way towards this painting. As a restless child, I was uninterested, even slightly frustrated, at the prospect of spending my precious summer walking through the NPG. Our trips to London were rare; I wanted to marvel at shiny window displays on Oxford Street or go to Covent Garden to watch a man put a whole sword down his throat. I didn’t understand why my mother was adamant about making this pilgrimage.


But I hadn’t yet come to appreciate the special nature of our annual trip; that we also went to see my mother’s grandmother on the wall. There was always a rush to see ‘granny’, whoever I thought that was at the time. It took me a few years to realise that it’s worth making a trip to see your great-grandmother on the walls of the NPG.


When I look at her now, I see a woman in her prime, looking more glamorous than I ever envisaged this distant ‘granny’ would. She exudes grace and confidence; the look on her face is sure and penetrative, and although my eyes are initially drawn to her elaborate shawl I can’t help but engage with her stare, almost out of competition. She is a woman who knows exactly what she wants, and that is to be admired. With her short hair, pale skin and red lipstick, Doris whole-heartedly embodies the trademark style of the 1920s.


However, my favourite part is her hand, ambiguously outstretched towards something we can’t see. Its extension determines the flow of the painting; it reveals the intricacies of her shawl and creates a swooping shape imitating the folds of fabric behind her. Perhaps she is pulling this mass of pale silk aside, or perhaps there is a brush carefully poised between her finely painted fingers, leaving an impression on a canvas that’s out of sight. It is the most mysterious part of an otherwise assertive painting.


Her hand lingers in shadow, drawing attention away from it, even though it has the most important, active role in painting. I also see Doris’ hand as a reflection of her manner – or what I understand of her manner from stories I’ve heard. Her fingers are feminine and pristine and amplify her glamourous aura. They are the fingers of a woman who moved in high society and worked in an immaculate studio, ready to receive equally immaculate sitters.


Although Doris spent most of her life living in London, she was actually born not far from here, in Argyll, near Gare Loch. While a lot of her paintings are portraits or equestrian scenes, she was involved in numerous projects throughout her career. One included a commission to paint a mural in the restaurant of the ocean liner RMS Queen Mary, built by a company based on the Clyde. She was also a costume and set designer and worked on shows at the Old Vic alongside actors like Laurence Olivier. During the Second World War, she volunteered as a nurse for the St John’s Ambulance before traveling to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp once it was liberated, on a commission as a war artist.


It is hard to imagine Doris, through this portrait, as being so active and involved when the image she projects is of cool self-assurance. It is hard to imagine her busy life when she has captured herself in a moment of such stillness.

[Image Description: Portrait cut halfway through her tight of a woman standing against a white cloth hanging in the background. She has pale white skin and short dark hair. She is wearing a black shawl with colourful details which leaves one of her shoulder bare.]

Image: Doris Zinkeisen by Doris Zinkeisen (1929) courtesy of Delilah Walter