Randolph Schwabe was born on 9 May 1885, the son of a Manchester cotton merchant whose father had emigrated from Germany. The family soon moved to Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, where his father became a stationer, and Randolph was educated privately. He revealed a prodigious talent for drawing, and at the age of fourteen studied for a short time at the Royal College of Art. However, 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 went to Paris to study under Jean Paul Laurens at the Acadamie Julian.
From there he travelled to Italy, staying in Rome and visiting Florence and other Italian cities. He then took to teaching in order to supplement the income made from the sale of paintings shown at the London Group (elected 1915), the New English Art Club (elected 1917) and other venues.
Following the First World War, in which he was an Official War Artist, Schwabe began to work for Cyril Beaumont, writer, publisher and balletomane. He designed wooden figures based on dancers in Diaghilev’s ballet and, during the nineteen-twenties, decorated and illustrated several books for the Beaumont Press. He also had an interest in theatrical and historic dress, in 1925 illustrating Francis Kelly’s Historic Costume. At the same time he continued to teach, including S R Badmin (at the Royal College) and Lynton Lamb (at Camberwell School of Art) among his pupils.
In 1930, Schwabe replaced Henry Tonks as Professor of the Slade School. Schwabe followed Tonks’ initiative by giving responsibility for painting to his friend Allan Gwynne-Jones, and allowing himself to concentrate on imparting the skill of drawing. Two years later, Sir Charles Tennyson described his approach to teaching in The Sunday Times as ‘enthusiastic, sympathetic and scholarly’. Despite his German origins, his own work was grounded in the English watercolourists of the eighteenth century, and it was no surprise that he was elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colour in 1938, and a full member four years later. During the Second World War, he supervised the evacuation of the art school to Oxford, but also worked as an Official War Artist commissioned to record war damage. He continued as Slade Professor until his death on 19 September 1948, at his daughter’s home at Helensburgh, Dumbartonshire. Three years later, the Arts Council of Great Britain mounted a memorial exhibition of his work.