A clear eye and sure hand enabled Randolph Schwabe to produce drawings, etchings and lithographs of consistent clarity and strength. Trained at the Slade School of Fine Art, he would return there to become an influential Principal and Professor. He also held a significant position as an official war artist in both world wars. Though he is best remembered for his attentive, absorbing images of buildings and landscapes, his subjects included figures and still life compositions, and he also produced illustrations and designs for the theatre. Randolph Schwabe was born at Alsbach House, 4 Cambridge Grove, Eccles, Lancashire, on 9 May 1885, the younger son of Lawrence Schwabe and Octavie Henriette (née Ermen). His paternal grandfather, a cotton merchant, had migrated from Germany to England in 1820.
Having failed in various business enterprises, Lawrence Schwabe finally settled with his family in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, and set up as a letterpress printer and stationer.
Randolph was then educated privately as a day boy at the nearby Heath Brow School, Boxmoor. Revealing a prodigious talent for drawing, he contributed to the weekly school magazine, the Heath Brow Chronicle, which was edited by his elder brother, Eric.
At the age of 14, Schwabe left school to study at the Royal College of Art, but did not respond well to the teaching methods. So, in 1900, he transferred to the Slade School of Fine Art, and found that he much preferred its atmosphere of greater artistic freedom.
After five years, he took advantage of a Slade scholarship and, in 1906, went to Paris to study at the Académie Julian under Jean Paul Laurens. He lived at the Hôtel de la Haute Loire, Boulevard Raspail, which was popular with artists, and at some stage worked at Paul Bornet’s Cercle International des Arts, which was in the same street. In 1908, Schwabe left Paris and travelled to Italy for the first time, in the company of his artist friend, Francis unwin. They worked in Rome, and also visited Florence and Venice, among other Italian cities. On their return to London, Schwabe lived at 37 Howley Place, Maida Vale. Producing landscapes and architectural subjects in oil and watercolour, he began to exhibit at the New English Art Club. After a further extended stay in France – at Siouville, in Normandy, in 1911-12 – he settled in Chelsea, living in a flat at 43a Cheyne Walk, and moving within an artistic circle that included Francis unwin and Gerald Summers. He also contributed to the exhibitions of the Friday Club, which had been founded by Vanessa Bell and showed at the Alpine Club Gallery, in Mill Street.
In 1913, Schwabe married Gwendolen Rosamund Jones, who had also studied at the Slade, where she acquired the nickname ‘Birdie’. Honeymooning in Whitby, they then lived at the flat in Cheyne Walk. In the following year, their daughter, Alice, was born.
When war broke out in 1914, Schwabe was busily developing his career. He held his first solo show at the Carfax Gallery in April 1915, while in the November of the same year he exhibited at the London Group for the first time, and was made a member. Then, in 1917, he was elected to the New English Art Club, and added to his skills by taking lessons in lithography from C R W Nevinson, a fellow member of both the Friday Club and the London Group, who had just been appointed an official war artist.
Schwabe had attempted to enlist, in 1916, but was rejected on health grounds. However, in March 1918, he too was appointed an official war artist, and recorded members of the Women’s Land Army at work at Rushden Farm, near Podington, in Northamptonshire.
Even while war continued, Schwabe began to design costumes for the theatre, drawing on a deep knowledge of historic dress. In June 1918, his designs appeared on the stage of the New Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, in Leslie and Dymock’s The Loving Heart, based on stories from Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Then, in April 1919, his costumes were seen in a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. His interest in historic costume later led to collaborations with Francis Kelly, a friend from Slade student days, and together they published Historic Costume: A Chronicle of Fashion in Western Europe, 1490–1790 (1925) and A Short History of Costume and Armour (1931).
In 1919, Schwabe was also employed by the writer, publisher and balletomane, Cyril Beaumont, to design wooden figures based on dancers in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which had become all the rage in London. This was the beginning of a close relationship, in which Schwabe and Beaumont worked on more than a dozen illustrated books, beginning with Walter de la Mare’s Crossings: A Fairy Play (1921), and including A Manual of the Theory and Practice of Classical Theatrical Dancing (Méthode Cecchetti) (1922). In the same period, in 1924, Schwabe exhibited his drawings in a solo show at the Redfern Gallery.
Supplementing his income as an artist, designer and illustrator, Schwabe began to teach drawing at Camberwell and Westminster Schools of Art, in 1919, and at the Royal College of Art, in 1921. He also confirmed his scholarly reputation by regularly contributing articles and reviews of exhibitions and books to various art periodicals, including The Burlington Magazine and The Studio. Later in the decade, in 1928, and until 1945, he examined for the Ministry of Education, for the greater part as the Chief Examiner in Drawing and Painting.
In 1929, the Schwabes moved from Chelsea to Hampstead, settling into 20 Church Row, which Birdie decorated with style and maintained with care. From the following year, and until his death, Randolph kept a detailed diary, recording his artistic practice, his active public life, and his views on the arts, current affairs and the people that he met.
1930 proved a momentous year, as Schwabe replaced Henry Tonks as Principal and Professor of the Slade School of Fine Art. He gave the responsibility for painting to his friend Allan Gwynne-Jones, and concentrated on communicating the skill of drawing. His close friend, Charles Tennyson, would later describe his approach to teaching as ‘enthusiastic, sympathetic and profoundly scholarly’.
These words might equally be applied to his role as Editor of Artwork, an international quarterly magazine of arts and crafts, which he took over from D S MacColl in 1930. However, despite his assiduousness, the magazine closed after a year, a victim of the uncertain economic climate.
Through the 1930s, Schwabe was very busy both as an artist and administrator. He held solo shows in London – at the Batsford Gallery in 1931 – and Madrid – at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in 1935. He led the selection committee of the South London Group in 1931, and in subsequent years was elected as a member of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (1932) and the Athenaeum Club (1934). His work was grounded in the English watercolourists of the eighteenth century – despite his German origins – and so it seemed only fitting that he should be elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours in 1938, and a full member four years later. In the second half of the decade, he also worked on one of his most significant sets of illustrations, for an edition of Somerset Maugham’s autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage, published by Doubleday Doran in 1936. On the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1939, Schwabe supervised the evacuation of the Slade School of Fine Art to Oxford. Combined with the Ruskin School of Drawing, it was based at the Ashmolean Museum. While continuing as Principal and Professor, he also responded, in 1940, to a commission from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) to make drawings of the bombed Coventry Cathedral and portraits of members of the Ministry of Home Security. Then, in 1941, he joined the WAAC as the art school representative, at the same time joining his fellow committee member, Sir Walter Westley Russell, as an overseas expert adviser to the Committee of the Felton Bequest on the purchase of English watercolours and drawings for the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia.
In 1942, Schwabe undertook one of the most unusual projects of his career, illustrating Shooting to Live with the One-Hand Gun, written by his brother, Captain ‘Bill’ Sykes, with Captain William E Fairbairn. (Eric had changed his surname to Sykes by deed poll in 1917 because of the German overtones of Schwabe.)
During the years of international turmoil, Schwabe had provided a strong sense of stability at the Slade School. At the end of the war, in 1945, Schwabe and his wife left Oxford in order to prepare for the school’s reopening in London, which it did on 1 October. In the same month, five of his drawings were shown at the Suffolk Street Galleries in the exhibition, ‘The Londoner’s England’, which showcased a scheme that commissioned artists to provide views of the capital. This limited sequel to the Pilgrim Trust’s scheme, Recording Britain, was generated by the Central Institute of Art and Design, and funded by four leading brewers, with the intention of bringing ‘the art to the pub’. From this time, Schwabe also joined Sir Kenneth Clark, a member of the selection committee for both Recording Britain and The Londoner’s England, in advising the Felton Bequest on its purchases of Old Masters, French Impressionists and contemporary artists.
In 1946, as a sequel to his wartime activities, Schwabe illustrated H E Bates’ The Tinkers of Elstow, which told the story of the Royal Ordnance Factory managed by J Lyons and Co for the Ministry of Supply during the war.
Schwabe continued as Slade Professor until his death. He died at his daughter’s home at Helensburgh, Dumbartonshire, on 19 September 1948.
Three years later, the Arts Council of Great Britain mounted a memorial exhibition of his work at its gallery in St James’s Square.
The Chris Beetles Gallery has had a long association with the work of Randolph Schwabe, and has recently mounted two rich and varied exhibitions devoted to his achievement. The first, in 2013, coincided with a new biography by Gill Clarke and a loan show at the St Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire. The second, in 2016, coincided with the publication of Gill Clarke’s edition of The Diaries of Randolph Schwabe and a loan show of Schwabe and his contemporaries, at the Otter Gallery, at the university of Chichester.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Imperial War Museums, UCL Art Museum (university College) and the V&A; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) and Manchester Art Gallery; and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney).
Further reading: Stephen Bone, rev Terry Anne Riggs, ‘Schwabe, Randolph (1885-1948)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 49, pages 294-295; Gill Clarke, Randolph Schwabe, Bristol: Sansom & Company, 2012