Refugees: The Lives of Others

Selected Works by Eva Frankfurther (1930-1959)


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‘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.’

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 drawn. 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’.

Frank Whitford, ‘Art Reviews: Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs by Eva Frankfurther’, Clare Hall, Cambridge, 1979, Cambridge Evening News, Tuesday, 27 November 1979.

stateless-person-eva
Waitress Resting c. 1955
White Chapel Market c. 1955
Workers' Tea Break c. 1955
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Eva Frankfurther:
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Couple With Infant c.1956
West Indian Waitresses c. 1955
West Indian Porters c. 1955
Woman with Two Children c. 1955
Young Woman in White Shift c.1955-58
Eva Frankfurther:
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Eva Frankfurther was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Berlin in 1930. Following the rise of National Socialism in Germany, she escaped to London with her family in 1939. From 1946-51 she studied at St Martin’s School of Art, where her contemporaries included Frank Auerbach, who recalled her work as ‘full of feeling for people’.

Middle Eastern Jew with Yellow Background c. 1958
Woman with Three Children c. 1958
Woman with Head Beads c. 1958
Middle Eastern Jew with Red Background c. 1958
Eva Frankfurther:
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Docker's Dinner Break c. 1956-57
Dockers: Father and Son c. 1957
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In 1952 Frankfurther moved from the family home in Hampstead to lodgings in Whitechapel, determined to live independently and off her own meagre earnings. She stayed there for the next six years among its changing, ethnically diverse community.

Frankfurther’s Whitechapel paintings 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; her workers are not glorified by their labours but defined by them and by the ‘stark struggle’ of their daily lives. 

In this, her work is instinctively more in keeping with the German Expressionist tradition, with particular affinities to the work of Käthe Kollwitz, one of her favourite artists. Kollwitz’s tiny but powerfully expressive self-portrait underlines this link. Like Kollwitz, Frankfurther’s 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’.


In the autumn of 1951, Frankfurther became a counter hand and washer-up at Lyons Corner House working the evening shift so that she could concentrate on painting during the day. In a letter to a friend she observed that Lyons provided her with ‘boundless material in the way of human beings’ 18  – enough to people her work for the next five years. She took as her subject the ethnically diverse, largely immigrant population among whom she lived and worked, and her studies of the new communities of West Indians, Cypriots and Pakistanis, portrayed both at work and at rest, and with empathy and dignity, are her greatest achievement.

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 her work as a trained painter stood out, particularly to the BBC broadcaster and critic Mervyn Levy. Frankfurther sold regularly from these local exhibitions and visitors often came to her studio to view and purchase work, which was, however never signed and frequently given 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.

Between 1948–58 Frankfurther also travelled extensively in Europe, and in 1958, spent eight months living and working in Israel, painting both Arab and Jewish sitters. Upon her return to England, faced with another cold, drab winter and uncertain of her future (she had applied to become a social worker at LSE), she succumbed to a deep depression, taking her own life in January 1959. The important body of work that she left behind demonstrates her instinctive sympathy for workers, immigrants and other people on the margins. This is 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.

See Eva Frankfurther’s full collection »

LOWER GALLERY – German Refugee Artists and their contribution to British Art »