The Art of the Johnstone Twins

Dean’s Gift Book of Fairy Tales
The illustration of Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone was as familiar to the generations of children that grew up in the 1950s, ‘60s ‘70s and ‘80s as the work of Mabel Lucy Atwell had been to the generations that preceded them. Peter Richardson, illustrator and editor of quarterly magazine Illustrators, describes their career.



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.
 

Doris Zinkeisen
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.
The twins were identical and as their brother Murray described them, “being one and a half people rather than two”. Their early years growing up in London were counterbalanced by interludes at the family’s country retreat in Northamptonshire—the aptly named “little house”. These interludes transmuted into a six-year exile while bombs rained down on London as Britain went to war with Nazi Germany. It was in this rural idyll that the girls love and affinity for the flora and fauna, which was to characterise so much of their art, was formed. 

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.

Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone 1953
A photograph of the twins in the spacious apartment they shared with their mother in 1953. In the foreground Janet, whose speciality was animals, paints a picture of the cat, Princess Tai-Lu for Robin comic as Anne looks on.

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.
 

Bill and Ben
The sisters' talents attracted the attention of the BBC, who commissioned them to undertake a wide variety of briefs for their newly launched TV show Watch With Mother. This included designing string puppets such as Bill and Ben, whose exploits were then serialised in Robin comic, providing yet more work for the twins.
 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.
101 Dalmations
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.
 

Finding Out
The publication in 1962 of the mass-market children’s educational magazine Finding Out, provided the sisters with some of their richest source material.
For Purnell, they embarked on a series of several folk-tale adaptations of subjects such as King Arthur and the Greek Myths and Legends. The stories were serialised in a new weekly part-work titled Finding Out, which were later issued as stand-alone books. The artwork the sisters created for these titles still ranks as some of their best. As with all their art, they collaborated on each painting with each sister playing to her strengths, Janet’s speciality being wildlife and Anne’s costume design and figure work.
 

Dean’s Gold Medal
The amount of work that Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone created for Dean was nothing short of phenomenal. Dean was, at this stage, part of the mighty IPC publishing empire. Books such as this collection of Nursery Rhymes, which appeared in 1964, were typical of the work they produced.
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.
Cinderella
A painting of Cinderella, from one of the fairy tale collections published by Dean. Once their exquisitely crafted figures had been finally resolved, the results would be traced down on paper, or as in this case, coloured paper with layers of paint being applied with gouache.
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.
 

Curtsey
Costume was an important ingredient of the Johnstone twins' art and was an area of special interest for Anne. When combined with their flair for charming and characterful figure work the results are captivating.
(Mike and Hilary Emeny of Art of the Imagination generously supplied this image and the image above.)
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.
 

Frog Prince
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.
From the time of their arrival at Badingham in 1966 they were on a veritable treadmill of commissions, the bulk of the work destined for Dean and Son’s mass produced books, whose outlets went well beyond the confines of bookshops and included newsagents and Woolworth’s department store. With many of their books constantly reprinted and numerous translations, they were literally sharing their work with a worldwide audience of millions.

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.
 

Princess-Dream
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.
The disappointment that the sisters experienced was, however, tempered with the knowledge that such was the demand for their work that their career would not be too greatly compromised by the abrupt termination of their contract. However the greatest threat to their career lay three years down the line and it was the unexpected and tragically arbitrary death of Janet in 1979. When she succumbed to smoke inhalation from an accidental fire in their kitchen, it really did hold the potential to spell finis to the distinctive Grahame Johnstone style of illustration.

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.
 

Peter Pan
Despite the trauma of the death of her sister and the increasing demands of her ageing mother, Anne’s work strengthened in the areas that Janet had used to cover and some of Anne Grahame Johnstone’s later works, such as her illustrations for Peter Pan are among the finest of her career.
 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.
Kitten Rescue
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.
Sadly, as Doris grew older and less inclined to either visit or receive visitors, so Anne’s life became more circumscribed, to the point that most of her maintenance of old friendships was conducted via letter, her daily companions being Doris and the numerous pets that inhabited the house and grounds of their home in Badingham.

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.


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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 

4 comments:

  1. Peter, that was really interesting - they're the pictures of my childhood.

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  2. Fascinating to discover the names and lives behind work I recognize. The Johnstone twins ability to 'draw' and knowlege of anatomy really underpins their imaginative leaps, stylization, and colour sense - like the Provensens and other US counterparts of the 50s and 60s. So glad they are all being given the credit they are due - thank you!

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  3. Hello! What a wonderful article about two fantastic artists/illustrators. Could you tell me where the "Princess-dream" painting comes from? Is it in one of their books? Thank you!

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  4. I am from California USA and I'm delighted to find fans in other countries through Pinterest of the Johnstone twins.

    ReplyDelete

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