Ben Uri collection

West Indian Waitresses

Artist information

Name Eva Frankfurther (1930-1959)

Born Berlin, Germany

Died London, England

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Eva Frankfurther was born into a cultured and assimilated Jewish family in Berlin in 1930. Following the rise of National Socialism in Germany, she escaped to London with her family in 1939. Between 1946 and 1951 she studied at St Martin's School of Art, where her fellow students included Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, who recalled Frankfurther's 'contempt for professional tricks or gloss' and her work as 'full of feeling for people'. Disaffected with the London art scene, after graduating, she moved to Whitechapel in London's East End, the home for several generations of successive waves of migrant communities. For the next six years, she earned her living working the evening shift as a counter-hand at Lyons Corner House and, later, in a sugar refinery, leaving herself free to paint during the day. Inspired by artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Käthe Kollwitz and Picasso, she took as her subject the ethnically diverse, largely immigrant population among whom she lived and worked. Her studies of the new communities of West Indians, Cypriots and Pakistanis, portrayed both at work and at rest, with empathy and dignity, are her greatest achievement. Between 1948 and 1958 Frankfurther also travelled extensively in Europe, writing lively and perceptive letters home about the art and people she encountered. In her last year she spent eight months living and working in Israel, returning to London in October 1958. Three months later, suffering from depression, she took her own life at the age of twenty-eight. Despite the brevity of her artistic career, she left behind an important body of work based above all, on compassion for the dignity of ordinary working people of all races and communities. During her lifetime Frankfurther avoided the art establishment but exhibited regularly in local group shows at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Bethnal Green Museum. Her work has also been exhibited posthumously in London, Leicester, Cambridge, Bedford and Berlin and is in collections including Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, Clare College, Cambridge, and a number of private collections both in the UK and abroad.

Object Details

Date c.1955

Object type painting

Medium oil on paper

Materials and techniques oil (medium) paper (support)

Unframed 76 x 55 cm

Acquisition presented by the artist’s sister, Beate Planskoy, 2015

Accession number 2015-17

Display status On display in 'Selected Works of Eva Frankfurther' until 18 June 2017

Eva Frankfurther was born in Berlin in 1930 into a cultured, assimilated Jewish family and arrived in England with her family in 1939. She studied at St Martin’s School of Art (1946–51) alongside Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Sheila Fell. In the holidays she travelled extensively in Europe, spent three summers in the USA and later, lived for several months in Israel. After graduating in 1951, disillusioned with the London art scene, she determined to earn her living by other means becoming an evening counter hand and washer-up at Lyons Corner House, Piccadilly, in order to concentrate on painting during the day. ‘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. Her subjects are observed with empathy and dignity, but rarely smile or engage the viewer. Although clearly modelled on individuals, they also serve as archetypes celebrating the stoicism and dignity of working people. Frankfurther’s migrant Corner House workers also document the changing landscape of postwar Britain and provide a link to our own multicultural age. West Indian Waitresses further reflects the changes in consumerism that Lyons introduced postwar with self-service cafeterias, where counter staff portioned out standardized food from open bains-marie replacing the popular ‘nippy’ service.

Frankfurther’s composition is so carefully arranged that her two waitresses appear to mirror one another: from the crossover tops of their distinctive Lyons uniforms to their outstretched arms and tilted heads with white peaked headdresses inclining toward one another, implying a close personal as well as professional relationship between them. The rose-coloured background is typical of the ‘feminine’ palette that indicates Frankfurther’s instinctive sympathy for women. The strong verticals of the women’s bodies and solid horizontals of their beam-like arms form a static framework counterbalanced by a series of strong diagonals. Their gestures are stilled, suggesting a rare quiet moment among the noisy, busy reality of restaurant life. Frankfurther lifts the scene from the frenzy of the everyday, suspending it for our contemplation.

This is one of four works by Frankfurther in the Ben Uri Collection and was shown with Portrait of a Woman in the survey exhibition, Refiguring the 50s: Joan Eardley, Sheila Fell, Eva Frankfurther, Josef Herman and L S Lowry (2014–15). Two drawings, Old Woman and Elderly Jew of the East End, also celebrate members of the poor but cohesive Jewish community among whom Frankfurther chose to live, away from her north London home. Frankfurther’s work, Stateless Person, was included in Ben Uri’s 1956 Tercentenary Exhibition of Contemporary Anglo-Jewish Artists, among others; and a memorial exhibition for her was held in 1962.


Monica Bohm Duchen Eva Frankfurther 1930-1959, Peter Halban (London) 2001

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