Major Chichester exhibition looks into the world of Randolph Schwabe


A major new exhibition in Chichester will recover a fascinating figure from the mists of time – a man who was an artist, a mentor and also a significant diarist.

Circles of Influence: A Diarist’s Perspective, running from February 6-April 19 at The Otter Gallery, Bishop Otter Campus, Chichester, offers for reconsideration the works and words of

Randolph Schwabe (1885-1948).

The installation shows a range of his work from when he became Professor and Principal of the Slade School of Art, plus his work as an official war artist during the Second World War,

The show also includes artists of the period referred to in his diaries and letters including Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Eric Ravilious, William Roberts and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A key feature of the exhibition will also be works from the University’s Bishop Otter Collection; of particular significance are paintings by Paul Feiler, Ben Enwonwu – both of whom were taught by Schwabe – Stanley Spencer and Ivon Hitchens and ceramics by Bernard Leach.

With extracts from Schwabe’s diaries, the works will offer unique insights into the artistic and literary circles of British society in the 1920s through to the 1940s.

The exhibition has been curated by Gill Clarke, visiting professor at the Otter Gallery and author of Randolph Schwabe: A Life in Art (2012). Gill has also edited Schwabe’s diaries, for which the exhibition is also the launch.

“He is one of those artists who were known at the time. His friendship was sought and his advice was sought, but he seemed to fall out of favour as his style of art became less popular. But he was clearly a wonderful draughtsman. He was known as a very scholarly artist and draughtsman, and the fact that he was a war artist in two world wars says a lot about his reputation, particularly during the Second World War when they wanted a very direct record. They sent Schwabe to Coventry after the devastation of that awful night of bombing. Interestingly, John Piper also went to record Coventry, but their two works are completely different. If you wanted a visual recording that was completely accurate, Schwabe was your man.”

As for the diaries, they add new dimension and richness to the man and his times: “He gives us vignettes we wouldn’t have known before, and he kept these diaries going for nearly 20 years.”

Whether he wrote with possibly publication in mind or at least the thought that others might read his diaries is a question Gill has often asked herself: “My instinct is that he thought they might be read at some time. He was a very modest man. He was not out for self-advancement. He tended to help his students to the neglect of his own work. He started his diaries when he commenced his time at the Slade and he steered the Slade through particularly-difficult times during the war when it was evacuated to Oxford (to share premises with the Ruskin Drawing School in September 1939). My feeling is that he would have known his diaries would be read.

“He was able to communicate not only what he was engaged in or what was recounted to him but also to convey what he felt. The content is accessible and like his personality devoid of malice or scheming. The entries are considered, without moral generalisations or bitterness, being on occasion moving, yet also witty and amusing.

“He maintains discretion throughout, only once in August 1943 believing that he has overstepped, whereupon he crossed out the entry. The indiscretion was more on the part of the teller, Lalla Vandervelde, former wife of the Belgium ambassador and good friend of Roger Fry. She had regaled Schwabe with ‘some old scandal’ which he thought she should not have told him so he crossed it out stating that ‘the best thing I can do is to forget it.’ It remains indecipherable.”

Gill added: “The diaries had been in the Slade archive for a number of years, but they belong to the family. His granddaughter is still alive. They allowed me to have them, and I have had them for the past five years, working on them. They run to more than half a million words. I used to work at Southampton University, and I took voluntary severance to work on the diaries. I am now visiting prof at the Otter Gallery, and this was an opportunity to publish the diaries and to have a unique exhibition around them. They have never been published before. I have edited them down to about a quarter of a million words.”

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