The Slade in Oxford

Milein Cosman’s student days

Milein Cosman arrived at the Slade in 1939, just as war broke out, as an 18-year-old Jewish refugee from Düsseldorf in Germany. She began her studies not in London but in Oxford, where the Slade was evacuated throughout the war. The Slade was temporarily amalgamated with Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing, which was housed in the Ashmolean Museum, most of whose artworks had been sent into storage away from the city, for fear of bombing raids. The classical sculptures in the cast gallery remained, however, and were frequently drawn by the students, who were too numerous to be all accommodated in the life classes.

Milein and Slade students in Oxford

The photograph above shows Slade students and staff gathered on the steps of the Ashmolean in Oxford in the early 1940s. Milein is standing at the centre of the picture and seated at the front is the Slade’s Principal, Randolph Schwabe (1885-1948). Milein was very fond of Schwabe, who taught the life drawing class and who recommended her for a scholarship. She was a little less fond of the Ruskin Master of Drawing Albert Rutherston (whom she suspected of snobbery), seen here teaching his students in a sketch Milein made shortly after her arrival.

Milein Cosman in OxfordAt the start of her studies, Milein lived in shared lodgings at some distance from the Ashmolean. In the summer of 1940, she had the luck to be offered a small studio at 3 St John Street, ideally located just behind the Museum. It had no water or electricity, so Milein had to make do with gaslight and a toilet in the garden, but it looked wonderfully romantic — a ‘rickety paradise’ that fulfilled her childhood dream of how an artist ought to live.

This new home quickly became a favourite meeting place for her many friends. Milein was very gregarious and hospitable and, since she never locked her door, she would often come home from the Slade to find a group of friends already ensconced in her little studio. Her ever-widening circle of friends included not only fellow Slade and Ruskin art students but undergraduates from various colleges, including poets like John Heath-Stubbs, who was a particularly close friend, and Sidney Keyes, who fell in love with Milein (unrequitedly) and addressed several poems to her before he was tragically killed in action in 1943, just before his 21st birthday. He was not the only one of Milein’s friends to die in the war, their poetic gifts recognised only after their deaths. Drummond Allison, whom Milein remembered as ‘a puck-like figure with blazing eyes and a reddish complexion’, was also killed in 1943. His collection of poetry, The Yellow Book, was published the following year, illustrated by David Houghton, whom Milein described as ‘the most gifted of my Slade friends’.

Writing many years later, Milein reflected on how ‘remarkably peaceful’ this time in Oxford felt, despite the death and destruction all around them, despite the loss of her home, and the death of friends. Her little studio had become a haven: ‘I was aware of our gilded-cage existence and felt both guilty and grateful. Nor do I recall any of my fellow students or undergraduate friends ever exchanging views about the disasters, or the progress of the war. Sidney Keyes’ preoccupation with death struck me as being part of his nature, not prompted by the raging war and its threats.’

Milein at the window of her studio in St John Street
Milein at the window of her studio in St John Street

In Milein’s studio imaginations ran riot: ‘At night, after a film, a lecture or a pub, we would gather before the college gates came down at midnight. The studio was awhirl with talk of ancient kings, martyrs, unicorns, Egyptian princesses, angels, heretics, ghosts, odd beasts and rare birds, monsters. Allusions and quotations filled the air and my bewildered ears,’ wrote Milein later. ‘Barely out of school the vast knowledge and high intelligence was dazzling. Without understanding much — I had the smallest knowledge of English history, let alone customs — I had the good sense to marvel at it all.’

While Milein sat drawing them all, her friends held forth. ‘Occupying almost a third of the floor space, John Heath-Stubbs would lie, stretched out on the bare boards, the light of a candle perilously close to the book from which he read with his poor eyes, his beautiful hands lit by the flame,’ she remembered. ‘Sidney Keyes read “The Foreign Gate” in stages. We listened to Drummond Alison’s poems he might have written earlier that day. He bubbled over with high spirits.’

‘At times, scattered on the floor, we played a game — a kind of “Consequences”; poems were produced blindfold, as it were, by passing long pieces of paper round where one line was written by everyone, the sheet folded over to reveal only the last word and the next person had to invent the next line before passing it on — I’ve still got a few of those long scraps, somewhere. Intriguing how revealing and unmistakably characteristic the single lines are of their authors.’

Sidney Keyes was not the only one to fall in love with Milein at that time. As her biographer, Ines Schlenker, says, ‘She was the object of attention wherever she went and received several proposals of marriage.’ Her beauty is captured well in these two studio portraits, taken during her time at the Slade by Lettice Ramsey and Helen Muspratt’s studio in Oxford’s Cornmarket Street. What they do not capture, however, is her warmth, her animation, her lively curiosity.

Milein’s circle of friends included several musicians as well as artists and writers — the composer John Veale, for example, was one visitor to her studio (Sidney Keyes had intended to write a libretto for him). Through the Slade’s life-drawing classes she met Elisabeth Wellesz, who introduced Milein to her father, the Viennese composer Egon Wellesz, whose lectures on the recent music of his homeland enthralled Milein: ‘To enter the Wellesz home in the Woodstock Road was like sniffing the air of Vienna,’ she recalled. ‘To discover the early Viennese music of our century through someone so warmly cradled in it, was tremendous.’ In 1943 Milein attended an overwhelming performance at Balliol College of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, in Berg’s arrangement for piano and two singers. ‘Peter Stadlen played and, looking like a Klimt painting, Helene Isepp sang with a tall, rather wild-looking young tenor totally new to our ears; the music was profoundly moving, a revelation.’ Afterwards John Heath-Stubbs turned up at her studio accompanied by the ‘wild-looking’ young tenor — this was Philip Rawson, who was then a student at Queen’s College and a composition pupil both of Wellesz and of Karl Rankl, another eminent émigré musician who had taken refuge in Oxford (and, like Wellesz, a former pupil of Schoenberg). Philip and Milein fell in love and quickly became engaged. Although the engagement did not last, they had a profound influence on each other’s future work, as Milein inspired Philip’s development as an artist and he fostered her love of music.


John Heath-Stubbs, sketched by Milein in his usual position stretched out on the floor of her studio in 1942.
Sidney Keyes
Sidney Keyes
Philip Rawson
Philip Rawson
One friend who retained vivid memories of Milein from her Slade days was the composer Joseph Horovitz, Patron of The Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust. He was just 17 years old when they first met in the life class at the Ashmolean in 1943.

Joe Horovitz
Joseph Horovitz at a celebration of his 90th birthday at the Royal College of Music in 2016

Horovitz was also a refugee from the Nazis, having left Vienna with his family in 1938. His father, Béla Horovitz, was the founder of the art publishing house Phaidon, which he re-established in England with the help of Stanley Unwin, whose firm Allen & Unwin became Phaidon’s distributor.

The young Joseph had two passions in life: music and painting. While still at school he had been a pupil of the Romanian painter Artur Segal, whose painting school had been evacuated to Oxford, joining the many other European émigrés who had gathered in the city, enriching its cultural and intellectual life.

Horovitz’s parents were supportive of his artistic ambitions, but they also wanted him to get a degree. But at that time there was no undergraduate course in either Music or Fine Art available at Oxford, so he did a one year BA in Modern Languages in order to qualify for the postgraduate BMus degree, and enrolled in the Ruskin School to study drawing at the same time.

He kept his sketchbooks from his Ruskin School studies all his life — and in the corners of several pages are drawings by Randolph Schwabe and Albert Rutherston. ‘They were excellent draftsmen,’ he remembered; ‘I tried to create a plasticity with shading, but they could do it with a wonderfully subtle line.’

He remembered the Ruskin drawing classes being full of Slade students, many of whom were much older and more experienced than he then was. One of these was Milein, whom Horovitz encountered in his very first term, sitting on the stool next to him in class. It was a rather intimidating experience: ‘I was an impressionable young man of 17 and she was a raving beauty aged 22, and everyone was falling over themselves about her. She was like a film star.’ He described peeping over at her easel and being immediately struck by the ‘extraordinary strength’ of her drawing. ‘When I first met her, I was simply admiring what she was doing. I saw in her drawings there was a power there, which I couldn’t explain — her drawings had enormous power in each line.’

They got talking and later he also saw her paintings: ‘It was a great surprise to me when I first saw an oil painting of hers — those deep colours.’

(More about Joseph Horovitz, together with a film in which he and Milein reminisce together, can be found here.)

Milein’s 1943 oil painting of servicemen drinking in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, the nearest pub to the Ashmolean.
Milein’s 1943 oil painting of servicemen drinking in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, the nearest pub to the Ashmolean.
This portrait of an unknown Oxford student was painted by Milein in c.1942.
This portrait of an unknown Oxford student was painted by Milein in c.1942.
According to Milein’s biographer, Ines Schlenker, it was the illustrator Harold Jones (1904-1992) who turned out to be Milein’s most inspiring teacher during her time at the Slade. He gave weekly classes in lithography, and these Milein found to be the most enjoyable and effective classes of her student days. She had always wanted to do etching (something to which she turned in later life), but there were no facilities for that at the Slade in Oxford. However there was a lithographic press and a good quantity of Solnhofen limestone, and Milein produced a number of striking lithographs under Jones’s guidance — until, to her dismay, the classes stopped after only one year, when Jones was called up into the Royal Engineers. The lithograph below, which Milein entitled ‘Flight’, won first prize in the Slade’s 1940 lithography competition. This work, like much of her art of this period, shows clearly the influence of her German roots — in this case Käthe Kollwitz, a favourite artist of Milein’s childhood.

Another of Cosman’s early lithographs is this 1940 portrait of the future philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, then an undergraduate at Somerville. Milein had spotted her striking face in the audience at a lecture given at New College by Graham Sutherland, and approached her afterwards to sit for a portrait. Murdoch was enthusiastic and immediately invited Milein for cocoa at Somerville. Afterwards she came to the Ashmolean for the portrait, but they found the studios filled to capacity. Milein therefore got her to pose standing in a passageway, while she sketched her features straight onto the limestone. Milein wrote later that Iris Murdoch’s powerful face made her think of ‘a young female version of Tolstoy’.

For the rest of her life, Milein’s art was always centred on people, their faces, how they held themselves, the way they moved. Carrying her sketchbook everywhere, she developed a rapid technique that enabled her to catch the essence of a person in the moment. Increasingly, she discovered that these fleeting impressions yielded much more than posed and staged attempts and in later life she preferred to draw her subjects while they were absorbed in their own activities.

At the end of her Oxford memoir written in the 1990s (‘Oxford 1940’, Aquarius, 1998), Milein described two contrasting visual impressions, one which she had planned and the other spontaneous. The first was a tea party at her studio, for which ‘I had the odd idea to choose my guests like picking a bunch of flowers: for their looks, contrasting colours and strange characteristics. Dark-haired, Roman-faced David Houghton, for instance, next to a redhead; a black-bearded neighbour or a long-haired blonde near a ginger moustache; dark-haired Philippa Woolf (Virginia’s niece) next to the lightest blonde, Iris Murdoch.’ It was one of Milein’s few social disasters: ‘I still bemoan John’s absence that afternoon — he would have prevented the silences that prevailed.’

On the other hand, ‘Sitting on my “donkey” in the life class, drawing the nude, I sensed such startling brightness from the passage behind that I felt compelled to turn around. I saw an heroic figure, whose violet eyes seemed to pour light. In a whisper, awed, I asked my neighbour who he was: “Stephen Spender”. It was but a little while after I had arrived in England and I was too green to know the significance of the name, but the vision stuck.’

The fact that Milein spent her student days surrounded by such a wealth of remarkable creative personalities set the course of her artistic life and she was well aware of her luck that the Slade’s wartime home had been in Oxford. By contrast, the Royal College of Art had been evacuated to the Lake District: ‘How differently my life would have been shaped in Westmoreland, where, by a quirk of the dice, the Slade might have gone.’

Despite being uprooted from her homeland, Milein always said she had ‘felt at home immediately’ during her student days. ‘Oxford was swarming with interesting people,’ she recalled. ‘I had some extraordinary friends.’