Eva Frankfurther artist (1930-1959)

The Lives of Others: Eva Frankfurther (1930-1959)

by Sarah MacDougall, Ben Uri Gallery

Two contexts inform the life and work of Eva Frankfurther: the decade through which she lived and worked in 1950s' Britain and its concern with the realist tradition, and the German heritage from which as an exile she was forcibly separated at a young age but to which she was instinctively drawn1. Reviewing an exhibition of her work at Clare Hall, Cambridge in 1979, the art historian and critic Frank Whitford observed:

The work on show is so good that I wondered why I had not heard of Eva Frankfurther before. It did not surprise me to find that she was a refugee from Germany, coming to Britain at the age of nine, for her style of portraiture belongs so clearly to a German tradition.2

Self-Portrait in Red Dress

Eva Frankfurther was born on 10 February 1930 in Dahlem, Berlin, into an assimilated, educated Jewish family, the third and youngest child of Paul, a businessman, and Henriette, an economics graduate. The family had strong cultural leanings towards music, literature and the visual arts.3 Henriette, already diagnosed as suffering from cancer during her pregnancy, died 18 months later. In 1934 Eva's father remarried and his new wife, Nina, became a caring stepmother ('Mutti') to the children. Despite the shadow of rising National Socialism, they were fortunate to live surrounded by a large close-knit family and friends whose protection allowed them to enjoy a relatively untroubled early childhood.4 With the advent of Kristallnacht in November 1938 however, 'all hell broke loose',5 and it was no longer possible to disguise the social and political chaos that surrounded them. Six months later on the eve of war, the Frankfurthers fled to England. The children, sent on alone in April, were housed in a school in Haslemere, Surrey, set up by a group of refugee teachers for refugee children, where they stayed for a year.6 Their parents followed on one of the last flights out of Germany in August 1939, three days before the outbreak of hostilities.

In Blitz-torn London, the Frankfurthers became just one among many families struggling to make ends meet, enduring rationing and the penetrating cold of the English winter. In December 1941 they were able to rent a flat in a large, shared house in Belsize Park Gardens, Hampstead, owned by the Freud family, which also housed other mainly German-Jewish refugees.7 To escape the worst of the air-raids Eva and her sister Beate (two years her senior) were evacuated to Hertfordshire for four years - a further disruption in their young lives.

Eva Frankfurther self-portrait

In 1946, aged 16, Frankfurther began her artistic training at St Martin's School of Art. Few works survive from this early period, but a Self-portrait with Plait (1946) (above) shows a wistfulness soon ruthlessly expunged from her work and from her later, more expressionistic self-portraits. In this transformative phase, even her handwriting changed from a clear, rounded, schoolgirl hand to a looser, more sprawling style. Under the 'semi-academic' regime at St Martin's, she studied anatomy and life drawing (under Roland Vivian Pitchforth), introduced in 1950; but the concentration was on painting and etching, underpinned by a rigid exam framework unpopular with many of the students. Among them were Frankfurther's fellow Jewish classmates Frank Auerbach (also a refugee from Berlin) and Leon Kossoff, who both found more satisfaction at David Bomberg's less restrictive Borough classes.

Eva Frankfurther sketch

Auerbach recalled Frankfurther's work, even then, as 'full of feeling for people' and contemptuous of 'professional tricks or gloss',8 a fact recognised and encouraged by their tutor Bateson Mason, who believed that she thought of her art 'primarily as a means of establishing contact with people, and not as an end in itself'.9 Certainly the concentration on people and on portraiture that afterwards became central to her practice was honed during this formative period. Never without a sketchbook, both at home and abroad, she made hundreds of vivid life sketches. She had an 'astonishing memory for people's faces and the unspoken language of their bodily attitudes'10 and this was often economically captured in a few telling lines. By contrast her paintings are more concentrated in focus and her etchings, in particular, have a pronounced quality of stillness.

As a student, 'Frankfurter' (as she was listed in the catalogue) exhibited at least once in a group showing of St Martin's students at the short-lived Coffee House gallery, near Trafalgar Square:11 exhibiting Harlem (£10) alongside Auerbach's Music Hall (£10), Doig Simmond's After Work (£5) and Joseph Tilson's Trafalgar Square (£10), among others.12 The change from a more agitated to a looser style of brushwork in this period demonstrates that she was not uninterested in technique. However she quickly tired of the endless debates over figuration versus abstraction, 'My colleagues and teachers were painters concerned with form and colour, while to me these were only means to an end, the understanding of and commenting on people', she later explained.

After leaving St Martin's, Frankfurther embarked on her first visit to Italy in the summer of 1951.13 There she painted pilgrims, beggars and children; and on her way home stopping off in Paris sought local colour in the working-class districts. On an earlier trip to the United States,14 she had made a point of visiting the black-American population of Harlem,15 laying the foundation for her interest in depicting ethnic minorities.16 But these were merely refinements of a subject that she had already fixed upon: 'Always, wherever she was, she drew and painted [...] people: ordinary, working people',17 putting the lives of others at the centre of her art.

Upon her return to London, Frankfurther, already disillusioned by the London art scene, was determined to earn her living by other means. In the autumn of 1951, she became a counter hand and washer-up at Lyons Corner House working the evening shift in order to concentrate on painting during the day. In a letter to a friend she wrote that 'It was a good arrangement' for the physical work, long hours and noisy, busy atmosphere provided a helpful contrast to the solitary, searching, introspective experience of working in a studio. Even more importantly, Lyons provided her with 'boundless material in the way of human beings'18 - enough to people her work for the next five years.

West Indian Porters

Many of her fellow workers had been recruited from the new immigrant populations, so that this body of Frankfurther's work has a documentary value recording the changing face of a new multicultural Britain. 'West Indian, Irish, Cypriot and Pakistani immigrants, English whom the Welfare State had passed by, these were the people amongst whom I lived and made some of my best friends,' she wrote. Employing loose brushwork and dry paint in a restricted palette, sparingly applied, she focuses on faces and postures in both single and small group portraits of chefs, waitresses, porters, cleaners and 'characters': playing cards, reading the paper, eating dinner, drinking tea, grasping mops, wringing out cloths; resting, or simply sleeping from exhaustion. They are observed with empathy and afforded dignity, but rarely smile or engage with the viewer simply allowing us to observe them. Although clearly individuals, they also serve as archetypes.

Couple with Child

Frankfurther made particular friends among the West Indian 'Windrush' generation, and there are many studies of her friend Catherine Jones, often depicted with her young daughter, Helen, in mother and child tableau including Family Group, which uses the distinctive blue and pink palette associated with a Raphael Madonna. The affirmative warm, feminine interiors of Couple with Infant (above) and Woman and Child however contrast to that in Black Man Seated (below), where we view the 'Lonely Londoner'19 for whom the walls of his bedsit are a prison. In West Indian Porters (c. 1955), based on fellow Lyons workers, Frankfurther shows her great admiration for Rembrandt, whose Two Moors (1661, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague) clearly inspired the composition although she reverses the position of the two men.20 Pencil marks and a faint outline around the porter on the left (facing the viewer) suggest alterations during the painting's execution, but both the background and the lower half of the picture are deliberately unresolved. Instead Frankfurther again concentrates on the faces and expressions of her subjects; their heads placed close to one another, their bodies merging, they exhibit a graceful exhaustion.

Black Man Seated

In 1952 Frankfurther moved from the comfort of the family home in Belsize Park Gardens, Hampstead to a damp basement lodging in Whitechapel, determined to live independently and off her own meagre earnings. She stayed there for the next six years. When the unhealthy surroundings were condemned by the hygiene inspector, she simply moved to another room in the same house. Her simply-furnished room also housed her studio and painting materials. Though personally clean and fastidious, she preferred an unregimented environment in which to paint, writing to a friend in 1956 when abroad in Berlin that though she longed to paint the pension in which she was staying was far too 'CLEAN & bourgeois to think of such a messy past-time [sic]'.

From 1952-57 Frankfurther exhibited regularly at the East End Academy at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.21 These exhibitions were open, 'without selection, to all from teen-agers to pensioners, who live or work in the East End,' and unsurprisingly, as the Times Educational Supplement noted in 1956, 'pictures of glaringly contrasting talent [...] jostled each other on the gallery's crowded walls' lending the exhibition 'unusual zest and piquancy'. Nevertheless, owing to the 'ruthless weeding' of exhibits by highly regarded Director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery Bryan Robertson, the standard was judged to be 'extraordinarily high'.22 Frankfurther's work as a trained painter stood out among the amateurs and reviewers began to look out for her regular exhibits.

The art critic Mervyn Levy a friend of and authority on L S Lowry and a BBC broadcaster,23 consistently devoted reviewing space to her work, picking out her 'Whitechapel Diary' as displaying 'remarkable insight into the character and destiny of her fellow men'. In it she brings the East End to life: mothers and children, market-stall holders and traders, barrow boys and old men queue, barter, buy and sell flowers, newspapers, fish and bread. In cramped interiors in the back streets workers iron, sew, roll pastry, empty ovens, mop floors; young boxers fight their way out of the ghetto.

Old Man in Brown Cap

Similarly, Frankfurther's Whitechapel paintings also portray a cast of stoical characters, observed without sentiment against a spare background in a muted palette that conjures up the drab, grimy atmosphere of postwar London. Her social conscience is notable in compositions including Homeless; and Old Man in Brown Cap (above) - his haggard, dark-eyed face closely framed against a mustard sky tells of a poverty-stricken old age. Her female Newspaper Seller (below) waiting patiently with her bundle is heroic in her endurance. Yet unlike Josef Herman's workers, Frankfurther's are not glorified by their labours but defined by them and by the 'stark struggle' of their daily lives.24 In this, her work was instinctively more in keeping with the German Expressionist tradition prevalent among many German émigré painters of an older generation25 (it is no surprise to learn that Käthe Kollwitz was one of her favourite artists; van Gogh was another). Her portraits, as Frank Whitford later observed, are 'concerned more with the inner lives of their sitters than with their physical appearance. Their inner lives have been shaped by pain, changed by dark circumstances'.26

Newspaper Seller

The Hackney Gazette, though impressed by her East End studies viewed them as nostalgic, 'recreat[ing] the past of Whitechapel'.27 Yet for Frankfurther this was not the past but part of the everyday, ongoing, marginal lives of Whitechapel, left behind as the world moved on, timeless scenes and characters from East End Jewish life, such as cloth merchants, Rabbis, Jewish bakers, kosher butchers and a 'Yiddishe momma'. By the 1950s however the East End was no longer a predominantly Jewish area but home to a mixed population, including an historic Irish community. One unidentified, striking Irish woman with red hair and pale skin28 became the focus of several paintings including Woman with Two Children, standing in patient profile shouldering her baby with one arm, a toddler dressed in red clinging to the other, her clothes and her mother's hair providing vivid streaks of colour against the drab background of their presumably straitened lives. As the Tablet noted, Frankfurther's portraits, 'always penetrating', could be 'both ruthless and delicate'.29 For Levy they marked her out, as 'a painter of real distinction. [...] She has insight, considerable technical ability, and the power to fire empathy in the spectator'.30

In contrast there are lighter studies of 'characters', such as the ubiquitous East End 'spivs', and Frankfurther's keen sense of humour comes through in sketches such as Grandmother and Child and Old Age Pensioner, enclosed in letters to a friend. A series of etchings (probably printed at St Martin's),31 is among the most atmospheric and accomplished of all Frankfurther's works. Perhaps the careful process required her to slow down and distil the 'never ending impressions that', she once wrote to her father, 'race through my mind. I feel as though in my head, or you would probably correctly say in my heart, there is a long queue of human beings, who all insist upon being painted. As soon as I have finished with one of them […] the next one is standing in his place'.32

Frankfurther sold regularly from these local exhibitions and visitors often came to her studio to view and purchase work, which was, however never signed (she also frequently gave it away as gifts to friends, family and sitters). By removing herself from the reach of a mainstream artistic audience however, she also limited the public and critical reception of her work and (despite individual artist friends) also worked without the support of a peer group or artistic network.

In 1956 Frankfurther left Lyons and joined the Tate & Lyle Sugar Factory in Victoria Dock as a shift-worker. 'The work is fairly heavy, but no-one to shout at you and rush you like at Lyons', she explained.33 Here she found further material among the dockers, distinct male presences including fathers and sons with strong bodies and lined-faces; brickies, hod-carriers and Trade Unionists. Instinctively left-wing, she joined the union, but at the first meeting, finding that nothing more subversive than the state of 'the gents' was discussed, characteristically spent her time filling a sketchbook. In 1957, however, wanting a complete break from her present life and not wanting to be 'comfortably settled as a "type"', she left London to seek 'new hunting grounds'.34

Attracted by the sunny climate and lifestyle, she accepted invitations from friends and several family members (also German refugees) to spend eight months in Israel. There she experienced conflicting emotions. She loved the light, open landscape, the blue skies and 'feeling of peace and unreality', but strongly disliked its militarism. Although she appreciated the hospitality of friends and family, she longed for privacy and time alone with her work, much of which was stolen despite being misunderstood. The locals, she told her father, disliked her work because it was 'sad'; the German expressionism which characterised it was then highly unfashionable, perhaps seen as a throwback to an earlier age and, her sister believes, at odds with the then current ethos to symbolise a strong, hopeful, youthful nation.35 She had already planned to return to London, though dreading its 'dirty grey' skies. Once there, faced with another cold, drab winter and completely uncertain of her future (she had applied to become a social worker at LSE), she succumbed to a deep depression. She took her own life in January 1959.

Acute, sensitive, intelligent, observant and compassionate, Frankfurther was also stubborn, single-minded, focused and above all, independent. Though far from a recluse36, she was 'driven', often having to fight against an over-absorption in her work and a hermit-like tendency.37 Her moods swung between 'highs' when she was '150% happy' and correspondingly dramatic 'lows'. To a close friend, Sari Stolow, she wrote that she often 'felt like a tight-rope walker at a circus, trying to keep the balance between going on and plunging down' (below).38 At such times she was highly self-critical, often destroying work believing that she would create something more worthwhile 'tomorrow'; very easily the promise of the white page and its 'possibilities' could become tyrannous and disappoint. Yet she was always compelled to paint.

tightrope walker

Upon her death Frankfurther left not only a collection comprising over 200 paintings (all on paper), a handful of etchings, and numerous drawings, but a portrait of the decade of austerity through which she lived and of the people of the old and new communities who inhabited it. Her instinctive sympathy for workers, immigrants and other people on the margins was probably due at least in part to her own experience as a German-Jewish exile and an outsider, but also allowed her a remarkable insight into their inner lives, in which she revealed herself to be above all an artist 'of vision and compassion'.39


[1] I would like to thank the artist's sister, Beate Planskoy, for sharing information with me and for providing access to material in the family archives, as well as kindly reading through and commenting on the text.
[2] Frank Whitford, 'Art Reviews: Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs by Eva Frankfurther', Clare Hall, Cambridge, 1979, Cambridge Evening News, Tuesday, 27 November 1979.
[3] Her father was a talented amateur musician and composer; her mother had leanings towards the visual arts.
[4] They were thus confined to an entirely Jewish environment after the Nazis began a policy of segregating and isolating Jewish children from state schools prompting the establishment of many Jewish schools.
[5] Susan Einzig, Transcript of Interview by Association of Jewish Refugees, conducted by Marian Malet.
[6] The children were forced to pick up English quickly, soon becoming bilingual. Although they often later spoke (and wrote) German to their parents, they never did so during the war.
[7] Lucie Freud had been a school friend of Eva's mother and she and her husband, Ernst, were very helpful to the Frankfurther family in a number of ways after their arrival in London. The other inhabitants also included a Norwegian sea captain. Paul Frankfurther remained living here for the rest of his life.
[8] Monica Bohm-Duchen interview with Frank Auerbach, cited in Beate Planskoy, ed., Eva Frankfurther 1930-1959 (London: Peter Halban, 2001), op. cit., p. 11.
[9] Bateson Mason cited by Mervyn Levy, People (London: Gilchrist Studios, 1962), p. 4. Bohm-Duchen believes that 'on the evidence of the rather mannered, romantic work' he produced, 'it was as much the emphasis on a decorative illustrative urbanity as any formalist direction that made St Martin's an uncongenial training ground for the young woman artist.' (ibid., p. 12). Nevertheless, in works like Sleeping Fishermen (Nottingham Castle Museum and Gallery), Bateson Mason shows an awareness of working people that may have resonated with Frankfurther.
[10] Beate Planskoy, “Remembering Eva, my sister”, in Eva Frankfurther 1930-1959, p. 7.
[11] Exhibition pamphlet: The Coffee House, 3, Northumberland Avenue, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, from 25 Jan - 23 Feb [no year given, c. 1949-51], priced 4d; private archive. Works ranged in price from lithographs at £1.1s to paintings, the most expensive of which was £15. The clientele comprised students, 'arty types' and Bohemians. For an account see Jack Chernin, Johburg to London: A Journey (Lulu publishing: www.lulu.com, 2007), p. 166.
[12] The other exhibitors included Stella Margarshak, a friend of Sheila Fell's (see The Coffee House, op. cit.).
[13] This was not however her first trip abroad: she had already visited the United States three times, always self-funding her trips and making all the travel arrangements herself. See Sarah MacDougall, Curatorial Introduction in this volume.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Learning the blues and so-called 'negro spirituals', together with Yiddish songs and American folk songs picked up in the camp, all of which she taught to her sister on her return and they sang them together over the washing up.
[16] Beate Planskoy, op. cit., p. 8.
[17] Levy, op. cit, p. 5.
[18] Letter from Eva Frankfurther to Vera [Lachmann], 3.4.1956 from 20 Mount Terrace, London E.1., family archive.
[19] See Sam Selvon The Lonely Londoners (London: Allan Wingate, 1956; Penguin books, 2006), the classic account of West Indian postwar migration to London.
[20] There were other art historical precedents such as Rubens Four Studies of the Head of a Negro (c.1615-20), Musées Royaux Des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, although there is no reason to believe this influenced Frankfurther's composition.
[21] As well as occasionally at the Bethnal Green Museum.
[22] He was assisted by Bethnal Green Museum's curator Charles Weekley and Head of Oxford House Alan Jarvis Hackney Gazette (4.13.1953). Other professional artists did exhibit, among them Rose L Henriques (1889–1972), known for her Stepney scenes, and David Fireman (dates unk.), a former fellow St Martin's student of Frankfurther's.
[23] A schoolfriend of the poet Dylan Thomas, Levy studied at the Royal College of Art, and in 1935 won the Sir Herbert Read Prize for Drawing. During the Second World he served as a Captain in the Royal Army Educational Corps, afterwards teaching and writing on art. During the 1950s he worked for the BBC, presenting the television series, 'Painting for Housewives', broadcasting on the radio and interviewing artists for the BBC archives. He published three books on Lowry (1963, 1973 and 1975), as well as on other artists, and wrote Lowry's original Dictionary of National Biography entry.
[24] Mervyn Levy, 'The East End Academy', Times Educational Supplement (6 January, 1956); also cited in Levy, op. cit., p. 4.
[25] Including Ludwig Meidner, Else Meidner and Henry Inlander.
[26] Frank Whitford, op. cit.
[27] Hackney Gazette (4.13.1953).
[28] See also Red-haired Woman in Profile (private collection).
[29] The Tablet, 12.1.57.
[30] Arts and News and Reviews, 5.1.57.
[31] Information from Beate Planskoy
[32] Eva Frankfurther, letter to her father (in German – translated by Beate Planskoy), 17 September 1952, cited Eva Frankfurther 1930-1959, op. cit., p. 117.
[33] Cited ibid., p. 55.
[34] Eva Frankfurther, letter to Vera, dated 3.4.1956 from 20 Mount Terrace, London E.1., family archive.
[35] Beate Planskoy in conversation with the author.
[36] From Jerusalem, in February 1958 she wrote that she was leading 'a very lazy life with just a few hours of work in the morning and the rest of the time just being social', Eva Frankfurther, letter to her parents, February 1958, Eva Frankfurther archive.
[37] See letter to Eva Lachmann, not dated, family archive.
[38] The subject of the tight-rope walker was also a subject much treated by one of her favourite artists, Daumier.
[39] Mervyn Levy (appreciation) People (London: Gilchrist Studios, 1962).

Ben Uri catalogue

Ben Uri catalogue

This essay was originally published in the catalogue for the Ben Uri exhibition Refiguring the 50s, focusing on the work of Eva Frankfurther, Josef Herman, Sheila Fell and LS Lowry.

Find out more about the exhibition

Buy the exhibition catalogue.