Doris Clare Zinkeisen (31 July 1898 – 3 January 1991) was a Scottish theatrical stage and costume designer, painter, commercial artist, and writer. She was best known for her work in theatrical design.
Doris Zinkeisen was born in Clynder House in Rosneath, Argyll, Scotland. her father Victor Zinkeisen was a timber merchant and amateur artist from Glasgo whose family were originally from Bohemia and had been settled in Scotland for two hundred years. She had a younger sister, Anna Zinkeisen, who also became an artist.The family left Scotland and moved to Pinner, near Harrow in 1909. Zinkeisen attended the Harrow School of Art for four years and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools in 1917 together with her sister Anna. During World War I Zinkeisen served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment at a hospital in Northwood, Middlesex.
Zinkeisen shared a studio in London with her sister during the 1920s and 1930s from where she embarked on her career as a painter, commercial artist, and theatrical designer.
Zinkeisen's realist style made her popular as a portraitist and she became a well-known society painter. The subject matter of her paintings, society portraiture, equestrian portraiture, and scenes from the parks of London and Paris reflect the lifestyle of the upper class at the time. An early success was her 1925 portrait of the actor Elsa Lanchester.
She also worked widely in other media as an illustrator and commercial artist including producing advertising posters for several British mainline railway companies and murals for the RMS Queen Mary.
Zinkeisen produced a number of posters for London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), Southern Railway (SR), and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) in the 1930s which often featured historical themes.
In 1935, John Brown and Company Shipbuilders of Clydebank commissioned both of the Zinkeisen sisters to paint the murals in the Verandah Grill, a restaurant and night-club on the ocean liner the RMS Queen Mary. The murals, on the theme of entertainment, depicted circus and theatre scenes and can still be seen on the ship, now permanently moored in Long Beach, California. Zinkeisen was also involved in planning the interior decoration which featured a parquet dance floor surrounded by black Wilton carpets, star-studded red velvet curtains and a sweeping illuminated balustrade whose colours changed in time with the music. Writing in Vogue in 1936, Cecil Beaton described the Verandah Grill as 'By far the prettiest room on any ship – becomingly lit, gay in colour and obviously so successful that it would be crowded if twice its present size'. The largest mural was damaged during World War II and restored by Zinkeisen after the war.
The Zinkeisen sisters also contributed murals to the RMS Queen Elizabeth in 1940.
During World War II, Zinkeisen joined the St John Ambulance Brigade and worked as a nurse in London. She worked in the casualty department in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. Zinkeisen worked in the casualty department in the mornings and painted in the afternoons, recording the events of the day.
In 1944, Doris and her sister Anna were commissioned by United Steel Companies (USC) to produce twelve paintings that were reproduced in the trade and technical press in Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa. The images were subsequently collated in a book, This Present Age, published in 1946.
Following the liberation of Europe in 1945, Zinkeisen was commissioned by the War Artists' Advisory Committee 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 (JWO). Based in Brussels at the commission's headquarters she recorded the commission's post-war relief work in north west Europe including the rehabilitation and repatriation of prisoners of war and civilian internees. Zinkeisen traveled by lorry or by air throughout north-west Europe making sketches which she brought back to her studio in the commission's headquarters for further work.
By the time Zinkeisen had become a war artist her palette had already darkened from the colours of her society paintings. Her war paintings use muted greys, browns, and ochres like contemporaries such as Eric Ravilious and Stanley Spencer.
Despite her success as a painter and commercial artist she was best known as a theatrical designer. And Zinkeisen was a successful stage and costume designer for plays and films.
She started to work in stage design as soon as she completed her studies at the Royal Academy. Her first job was working for the actor-manager Nigel Playfair. Playfair wanted Zinkeisen to sing in the productions, but Zinkeisen insisted on remaining behind the scenes. One of the first plays she worked on was Clifford Bax and Playfair's 1923 adaptation of The Insect Play. Claude Rains who played three roles in the play described Zinkeisen as "a stunning women".
In 1922, while working with Nigel Playfair, Zinkeisen met James Whale. The two were considered a couple for some two years, despite Whale's living as an openly gay man. The couple was reportedly engaged in 1924 but by 1925 the engagement was off.
Zinkeisen married Edward Grahame Johnstone, a naval officer in 1927, and they had twin daughters in June 1928 Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, who would become children's book illustrators, and a son Murray Johnstone who would become a fine horsewoman and won the Moscow Cup at the International Horse Show in 1934.
Zinkeisen became the chief stage and costume designer for Charles B. Cochran's popular London revues. Cochran described her work in an article published in The Studio magazine in 1927.
Miss Doris Zinkeisen seems to me to follow the best traditions of English theatrical decoration... She can now create costumes for all moods and times, and capture with equal facility the acid fervour of puritanism or the sweet lyricism of a faun... this young decorator, at her early age is, in my opinion, in the front rank of British designers.
— Charles B. Cochran, The Studio (1927)
In 1928, Zinkeisen designed the costumes for This Year of Grace by Noël Coward at the London Pavilion. In 1933, Zinkeison designed the decor and costumes for Cochran's production of Cole Porter's musical Nymph Errant at the Adelphi Theatre in London. The décolletage formed by the low cut design of one of the costumes resulted in a strike by the chorus against the perceived indecency of the costume. During the Second World War, she designed costumes and sets for the Old Vic Company productions of Arms and the Man and Richard III at the New Theatre.
Zinkeisen was a costume designer on a number of Herbert Wilcox films, including the film version of Noël Coward's operetta Bitter Sweet (1933), The Little Damozel, which included a nearly transparent dress. Wilcox's 1932 film The Blue Danube was based on a short story by Zinkeisen. British-born director James Whale specifically requested Zinkeisen to design the costumes for the only American film she ever worked on, the 1936 screen version of the musical Show Boat. It remains today the most popular and highly regarded film that Zinkeisen worked on.
In 1938 she wrote Designing for the Stage, a book regarded by Sue Harper, Professor of Film History, as an "influential innovation".
After the war, Zinkeisen continued to work in London as a theatrical designer and held occasional exhibitions of her paintings. She designed the cover of a special edition of Everybody's Magazine to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. In 1954, Zinkeisen designed the scenery and costumes for Noël Coward's musical, After the Ball, based on Oscar Wilde's play, Lady Windermere's Fan.
In 1955, Zinkeisen created Laurence Olivier's make-up for the film version of Richard III.
After the death of her husband Grahame Johnstone in 1946, Zinkeisen's twin girls Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone lived with their mother. Zinkeisen outlived her daughter Janet who died in an accident in 1979.
Doris Zinkeisen died on 3 January 1991, in Badingham, Suffolk, aged 92.