The Revisit : Thoughts on old children’s books

Recently I have been riding a wave of synchronicity while trying to track down an old child hood favourite book and it goes something like this:

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For several years this beauty taken by photographer Harold Cazneaux was propped up on a pin-board of my computer, a thoroughly modern milly, a face of modern Sydney. But the subject wasn’t Australian, she was a Scot, named Doris Zinkeisen, a painter, illustrator and set designer whose portrait I had also propped against my desk as I was trying to place my mind in the Bohemian centre of Sydney in the 1920’s, or more specifically the faces of 1929 for my novel set in the same year, where the above image was featured as a cover of magazine Home, Australia’s answer to Vanity Fair. I adore her hat and pearls, but most of all I love the line of her profile against the stylised monochrome fauna and the expression on her face, the elevation of her head. Quite a different view to her self portrait  painted the same year, which I curiously and co-incidentally also had propped on my pin-board, bought from the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Cazneaux captures a purity of line in her face, whereas Zinkeisen’s  self-portrait is daring and theatrical, the chinoisere piano shawl just hanging off her shoulders, her hand on the curtain, as if ready to reveal something, the light bounces off the drapery onto her painted face.

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Doris Zinkeisen was famous not only for her beauty but for illustration, her designs for the London and North Eastern Railway Line in the 1930’s have a wonderful whimsy to them, with historical figures used to promote the places on the line. She also worked as a nurse in both WW1 and in WW2, which was when she was also commissioned as a War artist and in 1945 she witnessed and recorded the horrors of Belsen-Belsen for the rest of her life.

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Doris Zinkeisen is a fascinating woman and it has been a pleasure to have her company desk-wise while writing, but it was with great surprise, I discovered that her twin daughters were none other than Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone, painted by their mother below ( I love how their hands grasp each other’s and their expressions ) They were once described by their brother Murray as really only being two halves of the one person – and though this may seem a cliche about twins, they did have an unusual way of working and lived together with their mother all their lives.

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My childhood was populated with their illustrations, and recently I spent time tracking down a copy of Deans Gift Book of Nursery Rhymes which has also been sitting, desk-mates with the work of their mother. It was with great delight that I tracked down a copy – the images exactly as I remembered them – a kind of cross roads between the past and the present of the time it was published in the early 1970’s. I love the period clothes and the lovely attention to details, a children’s confection of the Regency and Victorian dress. I do remember spending hours pouring over those images, wishing to have a bonnet, and I do recall my mother making one as a concession to my sister having her first school uniform, and it was with delight that I looked exactly like a figure from an Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone illustration. Their love of costume was developed at St Martins School of Art. Together they illustrated numerous books, including those by (and most famously s0) Enid Blyton and Dodie Smith.

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The sisters actually worked together on individual illustrations, working as a single unit to produce their work. When Janet died in 1979 of smoke inhalation, it must have been very difficult for Anne to continue, but she did, having to learn all the areas of expertise that her sister had, mastering horses and faces, and it is curious in the later work of Anne’s that the figures often face away from the viewer.

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To revisit old childhood favourites can often be a startling shock to the senses, for the magic one saw in the book has vanished with the child that loved them. However, with the work of Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone, I am back there in an instant, the pictures portals to the past.

Have you any childhood books that take you back?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Revisit : Thoughts on old children’s books

  1. Hi we collect the Johnstone sisters books and love their work and we have a hand signed copy by both sisters of Hilary’s Tune, and a first edition Struuwelpeter

  2. I love the Johnstone sisters and have several versions of my first favourite book, Dean’s Gift Book of Nursery Rhymes, and a few other Dean’s books. I have a related board on pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/mercybay/janet-anne-grahame-johnstone/

    -Lara in NL, Canada

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