Painter Eva Frankfurther was born on 10 February 1930 in the Dahlem district of Berlin, Germany into an assimilated, educated Jewish family with leanings towards music and the visual arts. Following the rise of National Socialism, she fled to England with her siblings in April 1939 (their parents following on one of the last flights to leave Germany prior to the onset of the Second World War). The children spent a year at Stoatley Rough, a mixed boarding school in Haslemere, Surrey, established five years previously by the German-Jewish principal, Dr Hilde Lion, with the help of Bertha Bracey, a Quaker keen to assist in the relief of German refugees. In December 1941, they rejoined their parents in a rented flat in Belsize Park Gardens, Hampstead, but shortly afterwards, Eva and her older sister, Beate, were evacuated to Hertfordshire for a further four years. After the war, Frankfurther, who had shown a talent for art from an early age, enrolled at St Martin's School of Art in London in 1946, at the age of 16, taking classes in anatomy, life drawing, painting and etching. Among her fellow students was fellow refugee Frank Auerbach, who recalled her work as 'full of feeling for people', and contemptuous of 'professional tricks or gloss'; her tutor, Bateson Mason, believed that she thought of her art 'primarily as a means of establishing contact with people, and not as an end in itself' (cited Bohm-Duchen 2001). Never without a sketchbook, Frankfurther made hundreds of vivid life sketches, often in a few telling lines. She exhibited alongside fellow St Martin's students including Auerbach, Doig Simmonds and Joseph Tilson at the short-lived Coffee House gallery, near Trafalgar Square (c. 1949-51), but quickly became disillusioned with the London art scene. During the summers, she frequently travelled abroad, both to continental Europe, and America, where a visit to Harlem laid the foundation for her interest in depicting ethnic minorities.


After returning to London, she became a counter hand and washer-up at Lyons Corner House (1951-56), working the evening shift and painting her fellow workers among Lyons constantly shifting, multicultural population 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 later observed. In 1952 she moved into lodgings in Whitechapel and over the next five years, exhibited regularly at the open East End Academy exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, where her work was frequently noticed by art critic and broadcaster Mervyn Levy. Her stoical cast of Whitechapel characters, particularly from the Jewish and Irish communities, observed without sentiment against a spare background in a muted palette, conjure up London's post-war austerity; her empathy for the 'stark struggle' of their daily lives, instinctively in keeping with the German Expressionist tradition. In contrast, her swift character sketches are often light-hearted and humorous. Frankfurther sold regularly but priced her work very low, never signing it and frequently giving it away to friends, family and sitters. In 1956 she became a shift worker at the Tate & Lyle Sugar Factory in Victoria Dock, finding further material among the dockers, brickies, hod-carriers and Trade Unionists. This year, she also exhibited in the Tercentenary Exhibition at Ben Uri Gallery.


In 1957, she accepted invitations from friends and family to spend eight months in Israel, producing a considerable body of work, much of which was stolen and never recovered. After returning to London, uncertain of her future (she had applied to become a social worker at LSE), she took her own life in January 1959. A retrospective was held at Ben Uri Gallery in 1962, a further exhibition at Clare Hall, Cambridge in 1979, and an important memorial exhibition with a catalogue by Beate Planskoy and an essay by Monica Bohm-Duchen, was held at the Boundary Gallery, London in 2001. Two further exhibitions, curated by Sarah MacDougall, Eva Frankfurther Research Fellow for the Study of Émigré Artists (2011-16): Refiguring the 50s: Joan Eardley, Sheila Fell, Eva Frankfurther, Josef Herman and L S Lowry (2014), exploring the decade through five powerful, individual, figurative painters all working within a broadly realist tradition, and Refugees: The Lives of Others - Selected Works by Eva Frankfurther (2017), exploring the émigré context, were held at Ben Uri Gallery; the latter also launched a website dedicated to her life and work.