The Diaries of Randolph Schwabe: British Art 1930-48 || Gill Clarke

I think it’s fair to say that you need to have an abiding interest in the minutiae of someone’s life to read their almost daily diary in detail. At nearly 600 pages, this is a weighty tome and consists almost entirely of its source material, with relatively little in the way of editorial content or illustrations – what there are of the latter, which are not all by Schwabe, might make you wish for more.

Quite what prompted Schwabe to start a diary at the age of 45 is not clear, and he is silent himself on his motivations. Their period, though, does start shortly before his appointment as Principal of the Slade School of Art and continues up to his death. Having worked as an art critic, writing came easily to him, so there is not the awkwardness that sometimes afflicts those who primarily think visually. His sometimes rather mundane entries are punctuated by observations on people, contemporary events and, perhaps most importantly, his own artistic practice. “[He] might be regarded as the Pepys of the art world”, the cover blurb helpfully and perceptively adds.

If you want a commentary on the art world in the period running up to the Second World War and continuing to its aftermath, you’ll find it here. Schwabe is a perceptive and sometimes acerbic commentator who is aware not only of his own milieu but also what surrounds it and acts on it. He certainly does not live in a bubble, as befits the Principal of a major institution whose job is as much administrative and political as it is artistic. Gill Clarke has kept a light editorial hand and her brief appearances are always relevant and avoid the schoolboy error of overwhelming her subject.

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