Portrait of Sam Rabin – Artist, Singer, Boxer


by Milo C.H

According to curator John Sheeran’s ‘Introducing Sam Rabin’ program, the artist was ‘one of England’s most distinguished art teachers’. He was also a bronze medallist in the 1928 Olympics and an accomplished opera singer. However, during his career as a draftsman and sculptor, he was referred to by critics as one of the ‘finest unknown artists’ and today there is a small amount of material to be read about him on the internet or in books.

The sport of Boxing was unfashionable throughout the 20th century, this may be somewhat to blame for Rabin’s obscurity, as is the lack of remaining work caused by its accidental destruction by landladies and various art schools. But,  most likely is that this lack of recognition was self-imposed. Throughout his entire life, Rabin was his own harshest critic. He strived to master the skills of drawing through study and practise and aimed for ‘true’ art devoid of intervention from the commercial art world. He never used an agent or sought to promote his work, he only exhibited when pressured to do so and he never felt the need to join a group or movement. Personally, I think his staunch autonomy as an artist and the dedication to his practice is just as noteworthy as his creative originality.

Samuel Rabinovitch was born in Manchester into a poor Jewish family in 1903. His father, a hat-maker, and his mother, a jewellery assembler, who were both exiles from Russia, encouraged the creativity of their children and in particular Sam’s drawing. At the age of 11, he was awarded a scholarship to the Manchester School of Art, becoming the school’s youngest ever pupil. In 1921, he would travel to London to join the Slade School of Art, where he was the ‘blue-eyed boy’ of Henry Tonks, who pressed the growingly unpopular and traditional method of studying solely from the nude figure. However, Rabin admired Tonks’ idea that an artist can find rich rewards from working with unpromising material, and with a restrained and disciplined study.

Rabin’s formative years spent at the Slade and studying Old Master drawings in the British Museum would instil in him a definite sense of what an artist should be. After Slade, Rabin went to study in Paris but only found what he later slated as ‘square and circle merchants’ who did not adhere to his alignment with the Old Masters and draftsmanship. He did find in Paris, however, a friend and mentor in sculptor Charles Despiau, Rabin would go on to say one visit to his studio was the greatest experience of his life. Again, this admiration was fuelled by Despiau’s devotion to his work, striving for perfection in solitude, what Rabin saw as a ‘true’ artist.

During the 1920s sculpture had become Rabin’s go-to medium and he was beginning to be recognised as an important sculptor in the modern direct carving movement. In 1928 he received his first public commission. He and a team of other artists, including notable sculptors Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein, were to decorate the new London Underground Headquarters at 55 Broadway. Rabin’s West Wind can still be seen 80 feet up one side of the building, a carving of a flying woman of contrasting angular outline and contained rounded forms of the body.  In the following years he would be commissioned to decorate the Daily Telegraph building on Fleet Street, he did so with two carved faces, one stern and gaunt and the other wide-eyed and youthful representing the Past and Future respectively. Only these two major sculptural works and a few busts depicting friends would be produced before Rabin abandoned sculpture. Not much of his sculptural work exists today, much of it was destroyed after confusion caused by the change of name from Rabinovitch to Rabin.

'Past' & 'Future' by Sam Rabin - 141 Fleet Street

pictures courtesy of Ornamental Passions

Moving to Salford at a young age Rabin had also undertaken the locally popular pursuits of boxing and wrestling. Years of weight training and exercise had put him in great shape, and he would compete in local arenas and sporting clubs. As a favour from the manager, he was allowed to sketch from the ringside at the Salford Sporting Club. At the Slade, Rabin befriended an ex-army boxing champion by the name of Joe, who worked for the building and would coach Rabin and artist friend James Fitton, the sport and Rabin’s art would become intertwined from then on.

Portrait courtesy of WrestlingHeritage.co.uk

While living above a laundrette on Tottenham Court Road, ideally situated nearby the Slade and sporting arenas in Holborn and Blackfriars, Rabin entered into the Olympic Wrestling team in the same year as his commission for the London Underground. During an eliminating round head of the Amsterdam Olympics, Rabin defeated the reigning middleweight champion of England in one minute and went on to win bronze. He turned professional only in order to finance his career as an artist but then became a favourite with the British boxing press and fans. Often fighting under pseudonyms, ‘Rabin the Cat’ would fight opponents such as ‘The Panther of Doncaster’ and ‘Rough House King Curtis’, in front of huge crowds. Artists, particularly those that knew him from school, flocked to see him and paint him in action, he became subject of several paintings by prominent artists such as William Roberts and Barnett Freedman. By the early 1930s, Rabin was a boxing star, even taking part in an early Mayweather-McGregor style bout when Japanese Judo fighter, Yukio O’Tani, defeated him. He would soon retire from the sport, but it would continue to influence his art immensely and he would become best known for his coloured crayon drawings of boxers from a ringside perspective.

As stated by John Sheeran, who spent time interviewing him ahead of some retrospective exhibitions, Rabin was not so interested in boxing as a sport, but instead was influenced by his early experiences to use the boxing ring as an artistic source for combining three-dimensional abstract images and the sometimes awkwardly positioned human form from any viewpoint. There is probably a lot to be said about the use of light, rope lines, and a vacant audience in these pictures, but just have a look:

He would only sketch ringside once more, at the iconic fight between Muhammed Ali and Henry Cooper in 1963.

Sam Rabin on his Boxing pictures:

‘My subject is based upon a personal experience which I have found lends itself to the making of exciting pictures, and I carry them out as convincingly as I can. The dramatic lighting, the colourful shorts of the boxers, and the inexhaustible patterns made by the white ropes against a murky background, all combine to make a most exciting spectacle.' -  'I am bored stiff by people who talk about the ‘brutality’ in my work – when the walls of art galleries around the world are littered with paintings of a man with nails hammered through his hands and feet.’

At the beginning of the Second World War, Rabin was based in Hampstead. Here, he was discovered as a singer, another pursuit he had been encouraged into at a young age, and throughout the war years he would tour military bases around the UK with the prestigious Army Classical Music Group. Composer and leader of the group Edmund Rubbra said about him:

‘I well remember his beautiful singing. He has quite a unique bass voice, extraordinarily wide in range and both lyrical and dramatic in quality, and he could have become a fine opera singer had he not decided to develop his considerable talents as an artist!’

After the war, Rabin would do a stint singing for a number of BBC productions but would turn down all offers of a serious musical career, instead opting for teacher of drawing at Goldsmiths College of Art in 1949.

As a teacher, Rabin was a disciplinarian and taught in the same demonstrative way as he had been taught some 30 years previously. His classes were always centred around a model, students would draw in silence and he would address and teach them individually. He would spend most of his working life in South London and be popular with students, including the likes of optical artist Bridget Riley, but less so with his new colleagues who had decided drawing instruction was obsolete and irrelevant to the new Abstract agenda of the art world. Frustrated, Rabin transferred to Bournemouth and Poole College of Art in 1965 where he taught until retiring at 80 years old.