|Dean’s Gift Book of Fairy Tales|
From collections of fairy tales, to children’s poetry, the work of the Johnstone twins appeared everywhere. Their whimsical waifs, romantic heroes and princesses and enchanted landscapes were an integral part of many a child’s bedtime story. Their books were so ubiquitous and so successful that they were easily accessible from a variety of outlets beyond the confines of independent booksellers, and available from large chain stores such as Boots and W.H. Smith, as well as newsagents and toyshops.
Their rise to pre-eminence in the perennially competitive field of children’s book illustration is a story very much shaped by its time. The Johnstone twins were born into a family of artists, with Janet, always the more assertive of the two, preceding her sister Anne on the 1st June 1928 by some twenty minutes. Both their mother, Doris Zinkeisen and her sister, Anna Zinkeisen were noted society painters, who inhabited a glittering and glamorous social milieu, feted by royalty, actors and wealthy businessmen. Ttheir striking good looks provided perfect material for society reporters.
The twins were brought up in a distinctly Bohemian milieu, as this 1929 self-portrait by their mother, the famed society painter Doris Zinkeisen suggests.
Their return to London in 1946 saw them in somewhat straitened circumstances following the death of their father Grahame (from whom Anne took her middle name). Their lease on a home in Hanover Terrace was sold on and they moved into a modest but smart and spacious apartment with their mother in Kensington, close to the Albert Hall. The apartment was shared with their mother in a living arrangement that was to become fixed for the rest of their lives.
Their artistic inclinations were pursued with characteristic vigour and determination and aside from the influence of their mother and aunt and their own researches, their art was further refined by attendance at St Martin’s School of Art. Their graduation and embarkation on a career in illustration came at a particularly fortuitous time as the UK came out of a an extended period of war-time paper rationing and new technologies provided new opportunities for illustrators to ply their craft. One of the first patrons of the twins' talents was Shirley Brieger, an enterprising young art editor, who was working for one of the spin-off comics that had appeared as a result of the runaway success of a revolutionary new comic for boys title Eagle. Published by Hulton Press, Robin was a comic aimed squarely at the younger brothers and sisters of Eagle readers. So instead of comic strips about space heroes, Shirley’s brief was to recruit artists capable of bringing to life stories about woodland creatures, fairy tale princes and princesses and any other subject matter that would appeal to Robin’s nursery-age readership. Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone’s portfolio was the answer to Shirley’s prayer—they were set to work straight away and were to become regular contributors to the comic.
In addition, the age of TV was beginning to take shape, and more and more families were acquiring, or at least, had access to, TV. Ever keen to try new directions and new challenges, the sisters worked on a newly created BBC TV series under the title Watch With Mother (a televisual version of the BBC’s very successful radio series Listen With Mother). The work stretched them, as they had to respond to a variety of briefs including set design, character design and illustrating the pages of the storybook, which would be an integral part of each show.
The publication, in 1956, of Dodie Smith’s classic tale with illustrations by the twins, raised their profile even higher amongst readers and commissioners.
Their work as children’s book illustrators began to slowly take shape as they applied themselves to a series of commissions, including Enid Blyton’s ‘Tales of Ancient Greece’ and Ida Foulis’s ‘This Land of Kings’, but it was the publication of their illustrations for Dodie Smith’s ‘101 Dalmations’ in 1956 that brought their work to a much wider audience. The success of this book propelled their work into the consciousness of new commissioners, including mass market publishers such as Purnell and Dean.
The publication in 1962 of the mass-market children’s educational magazine Finding Out, provided the sisters with some of their richest source material.
Dean was the other publisher who helped raise the twins profile from the early 1960s onwards. Originally the brain-child of the visionary George Dean, whose exploitation of German printing technology in the late 19th century made children’s books accessible to a much wider audience, the company had been absorbed (along with Hulton) into the publishing giant IPC. The twins art illustrated a plethora of Dean’s nursery books, from fairy tales, to nursery rhymes, to children’s prayers—if it was a book under the Dean imprint then it was almost inevitable that the twins work would be illustrating it.
The success that Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone enjoyed as a result of these endeavours enabled them and their mother to quit London and once more settle into life in a rural Arcadia. The Arcadia in question was the village of Badingham, nestling deep in the Suffolk countryside and the house that they chose was the White House, which proved the perfect venue for their needs and pastimes. It was here that the twins, along with their mother, could indulge their love of horses, Doris in particular, pursuing her love of carriage driving—a theme that had occupied many of her post-war paintings. A writer for the popular Woman’s Weekly was surprised when, having journeyed down to interview the twins at the White House, their afternoon tea was interrupted by an impromptu visit form their pony Victoria who wandered through the open French windows and into the sitting room.
But despite the superficial appearance of a certain Bohemian disregard for convention, the twins' maintenance of their art practice was disciplined and professional. Their technique was so interdependent, that unwise interruptions were greeted with a playful chorus of, “Don’t interrupt us, we are in the middle of a wash (referring to watercolour rather than a bath)”. Drawings and paintings would be passed back and forth between them, while the floor became obscured by layer upon layer of discarded drawings and reference material as the girls refined their drawings and tracings, prior to the final tracing down of the image and application of paint—often a mixture of watercolour and gouache. The atmosphere of intense concentration would be leavened by an accompaniment of music with breaks to attend to everyday chores and look after their numerous pets.
The influence of earlier generations of fairy tale illustrators such as Kay Nielsen and John Bauer informed a lot of the work of the Johnstone twins.
A thought that had evidently occurred to the project management team of a proposed Danish tourist attraction themed around the works of the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, who approached the twins in 1976 with their proposal that Janet and Anne should undertake all the design work required for such a venture. The amount of work entailed was truly prodigious but, undeterred, the twins committed themselves to six year contracts and using their aunt Anna Zinkeisen’s London flat as a convenient operating base, they set about producing a vast array of ideas and designs with which to provide the inspirational touchstone for the Danish theme park. Sadly the project foundered at the last minute, when the main financial backer got cold feet and withdrew his support for the venture.
A rare example of an altogether darker themed image which owes much to the likes of Bosch and Brueghel and signed by both the sisters.
Janet's death presented Anne with the immediate requirement to assume full responsibility for producing the artwork that she and her twin had shared throughout their career, co-creating every illustration that they produced. Not only did this mean an effective doubling of the production time for each artwork with a concomitant diminution in the family income but added to these concerns was the necessity of having to master all the skills that Janet had specialised in, especially in the rendering of animals and horses in particular.
On a more practical front, there was also the requirement for Anne to take driving lessons, as Janet had been the sole driver in the household and on top of all those other worries was the knowledge that she alone was now responsible for ministering to the needs of their now elderly mother.
It was a real testament to Anne's grit and determination that she was able to overcome challenges, which at first glance might have seemed insurmountable. With the initial assistance of Doris, she was able to master the depiction of horses and her commissions included some breath-taking work for Jane Carruth’s re-telling of Charles Kingsley’s ‘The Water Babies’ and JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’, both books published in 1988 and subsequently reprinted in 2004.
Anne’s extraordinary drive and determination ensured that she remained busy up until two days before her death, with clients such as publishers and card companies still soliciting her services.
Doris Zinkeisen died in 1991, Anne was diagnosed with cancer of the liver a few years later and, despite the debilitating effects of the chemotherapy treatments, continued to paint until two days before her death on the 25th May 1998. So ended one of the most remarkable and unusual careers in illustration.
I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Philip Kelleway for his generous assistance with this feature. His writings and researches on the Zinkeisen dynasty and the Johnstone twins have added so much to our knowledge and appreciation of these remarkable illustrators. His book on the Johnstone Twins is an essential addition to the bookshelves of anybody remotely interested in the history of children’s book illustration.
Peter Richardson has illustrated for publishing, animation, design and advertising. He is editor of the illustration journal Illustrators and has also designed and edited several books on the graphic arts.
His portfolio website is here