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The Review - FEATURE
Published: 3 January 2008
A couple sheltering in the Tube station
A couple sheltering in the Tube station
The bomb shelter apprentice

The artist Milein Cosman tells Dan Carrier how she learnt her craft in Belsize Park Tube station during air raids

AS the bombers roared overhead, a shy German girl, recently ar­rived in the safe haven of London, chose not to cower in her family’s air raid shelter in the back garden of their new Belsize Park home.
Instead, Milein Cosman gathered up her sketch book and headed for the nearest Tube station, intent on capturing her neighbours as they waited in the comparative safety of the Tube platform for the Blitz to pass.
It was a “wonderful training ground”, according to the Hampstead-based artist whose life’s work is featured in a major retrospective at the Austrian Cultural Forum next week, moving to Burgh House, Hampstead in April.
But as well as featuring unknown Londoners hoping to emerge from the Tube in the morning to find their homes un­scathed, she painted and sketched many of the great figures in the arts of the 20th century.
Among them sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth; composers and musicians Igor Stravinsky, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Yehudi Menuhin; and the writers WH Auden, Stephen Spender, Iris Murdoch and TS Eliot.
And as she looks forward to the exhibition being hung, she talks freely of the people she has met. Some of her subjects were pre-arranged: Auden and Spender were commissioned by Penguin; the new West German government in 1948 asked her to paint the new Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, his cabinet, and other members of the new, first post-war parliament – a task she said was “slightly tricky as they asked me to do it in just four days”.
Others she simply liked the look of: Iris Murdoch was app­roached at a lecture. “I was at a talk at the Arts Society in Oxford during World War Two,” Milein recalls. “I said to a friend: look at that girl! She was sitting right across the auditorium from us but I saw her immediately. There was this extraordinary looking woman. She had white blonde hair and a fringe, high cheekbones and blazing eyes: I said to my friend, my, I would really love to draw her. My friend said well you must ask her, but I was too shy. She accused me of being a coward so I said ‘ok, I’ll ask’.”
Iris Murdoch invited Milein to Somerville College for cocoa. After becoming friends, Milein created a lithograph of her by drawing directly onto a large stone. “She liked it,” recalls Milein. “but it was reproduced on poor paper – it was during the war and there were restrictions.”
In the 1970s she was asked to by the gallery the Hampstead Artists Centre, of which she was a founder member, to capture famous sculptors at work. Barbara Hepworth was living in St Ives, Cornwall, so Milein jumped on a train. She said: “I was quite shy – I did not want to ring up Barbara out of the blue, so I got someone to do it for me. She said pop down so I found myself on a train. By this time Barbara was aged around 70 and very grand – but also very, very nice.
“I started work but she asked me to come back the following day. I had to get back to London that night, and I hadn’t finished. However, she said she would call me when she next came to London. I found her sitting for me in the hotel above Paddington Station.”
She met Henry Moore at his home in Hertfordshire – but found the experience of drawing him at work rather frustrating. “He was very hospitable. But after a few weeks I began to feel that I had to hurry him up, as the exhibition was fast approaching and I still have not had the chance to capture him while he worked. I came back three times and each time he was doing something else – taking me round his garden, or watching the TV.
“I gave him a book I had done on Stravinsky to show him my work, but then, when he was about to start something, someone came round, the lady mayor of the town where he lived, and that was it.”
She eventually managed to sketch him a few times, but did not get the sitting she wanted.
WH Auden stands out among those who sat for her: I did him quite early – it was shortly after the war,” she remembers. “I found him utterly charming and he gave me all the time I needed. I actually should have done hundreds of drawings but I only did two, because I was just so happy talking with him.”
Years later I saw him in Heath Street, walking along in a pair of chequered slippers. He was quite old and had changed so much. I would have loved to have drawn him again – he had this marvellous elephantine skin, with deep, deep wrinkles. Marvellous to look at.”

• Lifelong Impressions: Paintings, Prints and Drawings by Milein Cosman is at the
Austrian Cultural Forum 28 Rutland Gate, London SW7 1PQ,
from January 9 until March 26

Refugee from the Nazis

MILEIN Cosman grew up in a country that was at the forefront of modernism: yet she chose a more traditional style.
“The town I grew up in was not very cosmopolitan and although these art movements were taking place around me, I was more inspired by the likes of ­Rembrandt and Goya.”
She was born in Dusseldorf in 1921 to a Jewish family. Her father owned a small steel works – ”he never made armaments,” she hastens to add.
She left for England in 1939. Her brother was in Glasgow, and suggested she contact the prestigious Slade school. Brazen and bold, she simply turned up on the doorstep one morning with a sketchbook under her arm and asked to be admitted. A brief chat with a teacher, and then a strange interview with someone called a “moral tutor” who asked her “...if I was a good girl...and if I had private means...” followed.
“I was so innocent and did not understand what they were asking. I said I think
other people would say so.
“My mother and father had got out of Germany four weeks before the start of the war,” she recalls.
During the war the Slade school moved to Oxford and she studied drawing and lithography. She worked to finance her way through college, first by driving a milk float and then teaching art and French at an Oxford convent school. In the evenings she lectured on art at the Workers’ Educational Association. At the end of the war she began freelancing, ­specialising in music and dance, and it was this that brought her into contact with some of the leading cultural figures of the 20th century.

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