Randolph Schwabe (b. 1885) was a measured man in art and in life. His drawings are meticulous, closely observed models of draughtsmanship and represent a school of art that has now largely been lost or dismissed as irrelevant. To some, though, Schwabe seemed old-fashioned even in 1930 when he ascended to the position of Principal of the Slade school of art, taking over from the formidable Henry Tonks.
The publication of his diaries from 1930 until his death in 1948 offers a welcome insight into the divergence in British art between the traditionalists and the new breed of modernists. Schwabe was emphatically of the former camp, and never lost his scepticism about the merits of the latter.
He was mostly a reserved and understated critic, although Picasso, Arp, Klee, Moore, Nevinson, Nicholson and Hepworth all come in for some degree of opprobrium. It is Paul Nash, however, who emerges from the diaries as the unexpected enemy, with Schwabe and his friends making repeated, waspish little assaults upon his work and character. ‘Paul Nash looked very thin (his work, I mean),’ he says, after seeing an exhibition. And of his brother John, he says: ‘Most artists agree that he is a sounder man than Paul.’
Much of the diaries are taken up with more tiresome matters. Details of his duties at the Slade, his work on various committees and endless rounds of judging and interviewing dominate the early entries. There is a preoccupation with the selling prices of his and others’ work and several references to the demands of the taxman — concerns familiar to most artists today.
The war brings out the best in Schwabe as a diarist. The Slade relocates to Oxford, where it cohabits with the Ruskin. Students serve as fire-watchers at the Ashmolean but little damage is done to the art school premises. Southampton school of art, on the other hand, suffers a direct hit, with the loss of over 20 students. Schwabe writes that the head of the school had been puzzled by the mysterious discovery of broken casts far from where the statues were kept. They were, in fact, the body parts of dead students, white with plaster dust.
Schwabe served on the War Artists Advisory Committee, chaired by Kenneth Clark, and was involved in commissioning artists to record all aspects of the war, a wide-ranging and significant operation. Again, Paul Nash comes in for criticism, especially for his ‘expensiveness’, which included demands for a special allowance for long-distance telephone calls. His death in 1946 is not remarked upon, although Schwabe does relate a friend’s belief that the work in Nash’s memorial exhibition has aged rapidly. A more prescient acquaintance suggests that in 50 years time ‘they will understand it’.
Far more favourable are the comments on Muirhead Bone, that remarkable draughtsman and artist who was a tireless worker throughout the war, serving the
WAAC with great dedication and distinction. A fine painting of his is included amongst the otherwise disappointingly meagre illustrations.
Schwabe hilself drew for the WAAC, visiting Coventry to record the cathedral ruins. Here he notes half-bombed shops open for business with signs on the front saying, ‘More open than usual’ and ‘You should see our Berlin branch’. A resolute calm prevails, but death becomes a constant companion to Schwabe, both during and after the war. His later entries seem to mark the demise of at least one friend a week.
Although now largely overlooked, Schwabe endures through his art. His delicate, nuanced work is currently on display at both the Otter Gallery in Chichester (Circles of Influence: British Art 1915–50, until 19 April) and Chris Beetles in London, but I fear it would displease him to know that it can be bought for as little as £350. The current record price for a Paul Nash is £212,500.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £25 Tel: 08430 600033