These works provide a vivid record of musical life in Britain during and after the Second World War. They feature a wide range of musicians, composers and singers, many of whom were pupils or professors at the Royal College of Music.
Cosman was forced to leave her native Germany when life under the National Socialists started to become dangerous for Jewish families. She continued her education in Switzerland before moving to England in 1939.
She studied at the Slade School of Art which was relocated to Oxford during the war. Here she spent several happy years exploring her interests in art and music.
This drawing was made at a Proms concert during the Blitz. When an air raid siren sounded, the conductor Henry Wood (1869–1944) stopped the concert to allow people to leave. Nobody did.
In Oxford, Cosman found herself part of a large and lively community of émigrés.
Cosman’s association with the émigré community lasted long after the war ended. She drew the Amadeus Quartet many times. Some of its members, including violinist Norbert Brainin (1923–2005), met at a British internment camp for enemy aliens after fleeing Austria.
On the completion of her studies, Cosman moved to London. She gradually established herself as an artist, winning a number of commissions for newspapers and magazines.
In 1946 Cosman started working for the Radio Times, during a period which has been described as the magazine’s ‘golden age of drawing illustrations’. This job gained her access to a wide range of concerts and rehearsals, and her lively drawings won much acclaim.
This portrait of composer and conductor Constant Lambert (1905–1951) was Cosman’s first drawing to appear in the Radio Times.
Hans Keller (1919–1985)
In 1947 the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra was booked to play Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the Edinburgh Festival under Bruno Walter. Cosman was determined to attend, so met with the music journalist Hans Keller to ask whether she might be commissioned to draw the performance. This meeting was the start of a long and happy relationship that lasted until Keller’s death in 1985.
Her husband was one of Cosman’s favourite subjects. This drawing depicts him in conversation with the British composer Benjamin Frankel (1906–1973).
Cosman often collaborated with Keller, whom she married in 1961. She illustrated several of his musical books. Musical Sketchbook was published in 1957. It featured a range of Cosman’s portraits of musicians alongside texts written by her husband and other prominent writers.
This drawing of Romanian pianist Clara Haskil (1895–1960) featured in the book, with a text by Keller that described Haskil’s ‘knowledge of Mozart’s secret – that the rest is not silence, but music.’
Ginette Neveu (1919 - 1949)
Over the years, several of Cosman’s sitters signed their portraits by her, as though in approval. This portrait of French violinist Ginette Neveu is just one example. Less than two months after this portrait was made, Neveu was tragically killed in a plane crash at just 30 years old.
Cosman frequently turned her attention to opera. Her operatic drawings range from detailed drawings of Mozart productions to sketches of celebrities like Pavarotti.
A number of these are reproduced in Musical Sketchbook (1957) alongside an essay by the Earl of Harewood who laments: ‘Singing to-day, is, as ever not what it was.’
Cosman’s drawings of Maria Callas are particularly striking, offering a characteristically unique perspective on this singer’s iconic appearance.
Cosman was especially fond of drawing conductors.
Their lively energy and vigorous movements were the ideal subject for her. She drew very quickly, often without looking at the page, and frequently produced several sketches of the same subject in quick succession.
Cosman often depicted her subjects from the side or from behind. She linked this inclination to happy memories of childhood walks along the Rhine. She said of these outings: ‘I used to draw people walking ahead of me, which had the advantage that my subjects were unaware of my pursuit. This inclination […] has always remained with me.’
Cosman’s portraits of Stravinsky are particularly well known. Though she had only seen the composer on a few brief occasions, her interest in him and his appearance has been described as a ‘preoccupation that lasted for decades’. She drew the composer hundreds of times.
In 1962 Cosman and Keller collaborated on the book Stravinsky at Rehearsal. This featured many of Cosman’s drawings alongside Keller’s analysis of the composer’s music.
Thomas Beecham was a prolific conductor who founded both the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras.
Unusually, Cosman began her portraits with the face. She often made several attempts at a face on the same piece of paper, until she was happy with it. Only then did she draw the rest of the portrait.
Cosman was great friends with Benjamin Britten, and drew him many times over the years. Cosman’s portraits of Britten have been widely reproduced, and are amongst her best known drawings.
Cosman could frequently be found at Britten’s concerts and rehearsals, and was also a visitor at his house in Aldeburgh where the composer treasured his own collection of Cosman’s work.
When her eyesight started to fail in later life, Cosman turned increasingly to making prints like this one.
Amaryllis Fleming has been called ‘the leading cellist in post-war Europe’.
She made her first broadcast on the BBC at the age of just 15 years old, before winning a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. Later in her career she returned as a Professor, and the College’s main concert hall is now named in her honour.
Cosman said that cellists are always ‘marvellous to draw […] crawling all over their instruments like beetles’.
This portrait of British pianist Valerie Tryon demonstrates Cosman’s skill with watercolour. Although few of her portraits are in this medium, the watercolours in the collection are vividly coloured and visually arresting.
In 1950 Tryon became one of the youngest students to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Music. She has lived in Canada since the 1970s and still performs and records internationally.
The Milein Cosman Collection
The Royal College of Music Museum has acquired over 1,300 musical portraits by Milein Cosman, many of which have never been publicly viewed before. Generous financial support from the Pilgrim Trust has enabled digitisation of the collection, which you can explore here: http://museumcollections.rcm.ac.uk/collections/milein-cosman-collection/
With special thanks to Milein Cosman and The Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust, Julian Hogg, Jane Cassini and Andrea Rauter.
Our thanks also to Ines Schlenker, the author of Milein Cosman: Capturing Time (Prestel Publishing, 2019). Note that any quotations in the exhibition are taken from this book unless otherwise noted.
Cataloguing and digitisation of the Cosman Collection has been generously supported by The Pilgrim Trust, to whom we are very grateful.
Digitisation support was provided by Cultural Heritage Digitisation, Maria Villarroya Arin, Jack Selby, Anuka Randev, Isobel Clarke and Ella Swinson Reid.
Digital development: Richard Martin.
Texts and image selection: Richard Martin and Anna Maria Barry.