Hampstead artist has painted world's most famous faces

LIKE many German-Jewish refugees, artist Milein Cosman first came to Hampstead during the Second World War. In her holidays from the Slade School of Art she would visit her mother s flat in Belsize Park Gardens where they slept in a little larder on ledg

LIKE many German-Jewish refugees, artist Milein Cosman first came to Hampstead during the Second World War.

In her holidays from the Slade School of Art she would visit her mother's flat in Belsize Park Gardens where they "slept in a little larder on ledges".

Cosman would venture forth to sketch Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in nearby Belsize Park Underground station.

That same year, 1941, the 20-year-old spotted an interesting face across a lecture hall in Oxford - where the Slade was based during the war.

"I said to my friend, 'Look at that face over there, I want to draw her.' My friend said, 'Don't be a coward, ask her.' I rushed up to this extraordinary looking young woman who had wonderful cheekbones and a flattish sort of nose and light fair hair and she got out her notebook and said: 'Come for cocoa at Somerville.'"

The woman was Iris Murdoch and the pair became friends as Cosman practised her newfound technique of lithography.

Most Read

"She was more than happy to be drawn and it was kind of her to give me the time. She was so busy studying and writing and being engaged. She was terribly nice, with an astonishing face. She looked a bit like Tolstoy without the beard."

After art school, Cosman returned to north London, taking rooms in Aberdare Gardens, Adelaide Road then Christchurch Hill.

She found a damp studio around the corner where she lived and worked on illustrations for books, newspapers and magazines.

As with Murdoch, when she met her future husband, the musician and music critic Hans Keller, it was his face rather than his undoubted talent that first drew her attention.

"My first thought was, 'I wish I could draw him. He wasn't difficult to capture and, in the end, I had a lifelong opportunity to draw him. I still went on after he died."

The couple lived in Hampstead in Willow Road, later moving near Hampstead Parish Church.

Cosman's commissions, combined with access to her famous neighbours and the great and the good of the music world, saw her build up an extraordinary collection of portraits of cultural figures ranging from Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Benjamin Britten, TS Eliot and WH Auden.

She once had to ask the permission of Benjamin Britten's tartar of a housekeeper to sketch the parrot, which was kept in his pantry.

"She was a difficult woman and I thought it peculiar that I had to ask permission to draw the bird when I didn't have to ask to draw the great people of this world."

Cosman's work is in the V&A, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum and Ashmolean Museum. Lifelong Impressions, a major retrospective run by the Jewish Museum, is at the Austrian Cultural Forum in South London from January 9 until March 26, when it moves to Burgh House, Hampstead.

Although she now suffers from poor eyesight, Cosman still takes her sketchbook with her on her travels around Hampstead.

"I feel like an orphan without it," says the sprightly 86-year-old who has a warmth and humour that would surely have put her sitters at ease.

"Drawing for me is a tick, it's a kind of obsession. I remember when I was at school, and just six years old, the thrill of dipping your pen in the ink and making a mark on the page. From then onwards, whether it was on the beach in sand or with pen and paper, I drew all the time. Throughout my schooldays I drew under the table - I shouldn't have ever been at school, it was useless. It was in my family. My father and grandfather were very good at drawing."

Cosman, who was born in Dusseldorf, came to England in 1939 to join her brother. Her parents got out of Germany "by the skin of their teeth," moving first to Holland, then eventually London.

Although she has painted many landscapes, it is for faces, figures in motion and creative people in the process of creating that she is best known.

"I am interested in people. I have always had an enormous number of friends. I like people and animals - babies and dogs. I do remember drawing mountains and the lake in Geneva but it's not that interesting. London life meant seeing a lot of conductors, actors. I like catching life on the wing - perhaps it is because of something restless in me."

She started sketching musicians because she loved music and had no money to go to concerts. She prefers to catch her subjects unawares, rather than them posing formally for a portrait.

"It's nice when people are not aware of being sketched, they are just themselves. I am at my best when I am working very fast, I often haven't even shown it to people when I have drawn them."

She wrote in her introduction to a series of sketches of Stravinsky carried out in the late 50s during rehearsals: "I would like to thank Stravinsky himself for being, rather like Vienna, an ever changing delight to the eye, unaware of its intrusion."

She adds: "Most of my subjects weren't interested in the least in being drawn. Most musicians have no interest in anything but music. They live on a different planet."

Julian Hogg, Cosman's friend, has co-created the exhibition. "The problem with putting together an exhibition of Milein's work is not what you put in but what you have to leave out. She has led such a full and fascinating life and the quantity of interesting subjects she has drawn is staggering."

All the paintings prints and drawings in the exhibition are for sale. Proceeds will go to the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust which carries out educa-tional work in art and music.