Zoltan Lewinter-Frankl (1894 - 1961):
by Paul Neitsche
Zoltan Lewinter-Frankl was Northern Ireland's only significant private patron of fine art throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, during the time that the post-war movement in Irish art was taking shape. He was a key source of support for artists such as Gerard Dillon, Daniel O'Neill, Colin Middleton, Markey Robinson and Jack Yeats, and went on to buy the work of the generation that followed them, which included Basil Blackshaw and T P Flanagan. When CEMA (the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), which would later become the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, organised its first touring exhibition of Contemporary Ulster Paintings to be shown in Scotland in 1951, thirty-seven of the forty-one works in the show came from the Frankl collection.
Zoltan Frankl was born in Hungary in 1894 and was educated in Budapest. After service with a German Hussar regiment in the First World War (during which he was awarded the Iron Cross), he went to work in the wool and knitwear industry in Vienna. In 1924 he married Anny Lewinter, who owned a couture knitwear business, and by 1930 the couple were running a substantial factory. Following Germany's 1938 annexation of Austria, the Lewinter-Frankls, as Jews, were forced to flee the country for London. The family's plan had been to travel on to Australia, where they had many contacts in the wool industry. While in London, however, they were assiduously courted by the Northern Irish government, which had passed the New Industries Development Act in 1937 to encourage rural-based industries. The Lewinter-Frankls were invited to Belfast, to be met on the dockside by the personal Rolls-Royce of the Minister for Agriculture, Sir Basil Brooke, and given a carefully managed guided tour of the wonders of Northern Ireland.
Brook's strategy worked and Zoltan and Anny agreed to change their plans. They set up Anny Lewinter Ltd in Newtownards, specialising in machine-knitted haute couture garments for export. Frankl began collecting art almost as soon as he arrived in Northern Ireland. In 1944 he lent 39 pictures to a travelling exhibition of Ulster. All were Irish in origin including works by Nathaniel Hone, William Leech, Sean Keating and Jack B. Yeats. Also represented were William Conor, Han Iten, Tom Carr and Paul Neitsche. In 1958 the Belfast Museum staged an exhibition of the highlights of Frankl's collection, and the catalogue ran to 248 items. The majority of the works were by living NI artists and sculptors. In that 1958 catalogue there were works by Basil Blackshaw (18 works), George Campbell (13 works), William Conor (9 works), John Hunter (10 works), Colin Middleton (24 works), Paul Neitsche (22 works) and Daniel O'Neill (24 works). Jack B. Yeats was represented by 9 oils.
It is important to appreciate the impact this sort of support had on the Northern Irish arts world. The Belfast painter Arthur Armstrong, in an interview before his death in 1996, recalled how painting was viewed as 'a furtive profession' in his hometown: in the nine years from 1944 to 1953, he just sold one painting there. In this climate, Frankl was an even more astonishing phenomenon. It was only at the end of the 1950s that other major collectors, such as the Dublin businessman Gordon Lambert, whose collection now forms the basis of the Irish Museum of Modern Art's permanent holdings, started paying similar attention to the Northern Irish movement.
Frankl was selective in his intimates in Belfast itself. He was naturally drawn to others who shared his background - the Swiss painter Hans Iten and particularly the Ukrainian Paul Nietsche were friends. Others were admitted into his inner circle because of a certain quality of intellect or eccentricity - John Hewitt, the writer F L Green, Stanley Spencer and particularly Markey Robinson, whom Frankl described in a catalogue introduction as 'the most amazing personality I have met for some time'.
Frankl regularly invited artists to his house at 93 Malone Road and occasionally attended the weekly gatherings at Campbell's Cafe which were a feature of the Belfast art community, but like Markey he tended to hold himself slightly apart from the majority of those whom he supported.
Zoltan Lewinter-Frankl died in 1961, and his attachment to his adopted country may finally be gauged by his baptism as a Presbyterian shortly before his death. Anny continued to live in the couple's house at Malone Road until her own death in 1999. Many pictures remain in family hands, and a portrait of Zoltan by his friend Paul Nietsche was gifted to the Ulster Museum in his memory. As a patron, Zoltan played a significant role in supporting a group of artists who have come to define Irish art in the mid-20th century, and in influencing a generation of later Northern Irish patrons in their favour. When the collector Dr Terence Fulton donated Rodric O'Conor's Woman in White to the Ulster Museum in 1987, he did so in memory of Zoltan Lewinter-Frankl.
© 2019 Ulster History Circle