On the trail of ‘Superman’ Sam


He may not have been quite as fast as a speeding bullet, but to many who met him Sam Rabin was a real-life Superman.

That’s according to his former student Sharon Taylor, from Bournemouth who as a teenager attended his drawing classes at Poole Arts Centre and is now researching a book about her one-time mentor. 

“He was a genius, an amazing man; I am so lucky to have known him,” she says.  

“His talent was very natural; to him it was like breathing. To look at he was clearly a man of strength and had a powerful presence. I was shy and initially, I found his stature quite intimidating. 

“He used to appear at your shoulder, look at what you were doing and offer a few words of advice, little pointers really. To illustrate his point, he’d make a few marks on your drawing, or do a little sketch at the side, and what he did with just a few lines was incredible. 

“I’d love Sam’s story to be better known as it may be an inspiration to others. Poole and Bournemouth should be proud to have Sam as a leading light in their history.” 

Best remembered in Poole for the time he spent teaching life drawing at Poole Arts Centre from its opening in 1978 until shortly before his death in 1991, in his long life Sam was a highly accomplished painter, draughtsman, sculptor, printmaker, teacher, wrestler, boxer, singer and actor. He won a bronze medal for wrestling at the 1928 Olympics, appeared in films for Alexander Korda and sang professionally in the 1940s, auditioning for the legendary conductor Victor de Sabata. Later, he tutored the likes of Bridget Riley and Mary Quant at Goldsmiths. 

“Sam didn’t tell us anything about his life, but we just sort of found out things like the wrestling and the connection with Lowry through art school in Manchester,” says Sharon, who had been taken to Sam’s classes as a teenager by her father. 

“Dad was a real eccentric, always taking me on fun adventures, so when he took me to Sam’s class for the first time it was a total surprise. My mum came a few times as well and, although Sam was a disciplined teacher, I remember overhearing him tell one of them I was OK at drawing, I had some ability. He was a man of few words and honest, so that meant the world to me. 

“That might have sounded quite dismissive, but from Sam it meant the world. He wouldn’t tell you what to do, he used to suggest things and leave you room to find out for yourself.” 

Sharon is now keen to gather stories about Sam that she hopes to feature in a book about his extraordinary life and times. She hopes to be able to make a donation from sales to the National Centre for Writing, which gives grants to aspiring writers. 

Born Samuel Rabinovitch in 1903 to Russian Jewish émigrés, in 1914 he won a scholarship and became the youngest ever pupil to attend Manchester Municipal School of Art, where LS Lowry studied evening classes. Sam was taught by French artist Adolphe Valette before continuing his studies at the Slade School of Fine Art under Henry Tonks. 

After working with the sculptor CharlesDespiauin Paris he returned to London and in 1928 worked on the new headquarters for the UERL (the forerunner of London Underground) with Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein among others, and theDaily Telegraphbuilding in Fleet Street. 

Physically strong, Sam supplemented his earnings by boxing and wrestling, earning a call up to the Great Britain squad for the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 where he won a bronze medal in freestyle wrestling, middleweight division, prompting him to turn professional. He fought as ‘Rabin the Cat’ and ‘Sam Radnor the Hebrew Jew’, drawing huge crowds and catching the eye of film producer-director Alexander Korda who cast him in The Private Life of Henry VIIIin 1933 andThe Scarlet Pimpernelthe following year. 

As well as featuring in ringside paintings by the likes of William Roberts and Barnett Freedman, Rabin also made his own boxing paintings – in later life he sketched ringside at the Muhammed Ali (then Cassius Clay) v Henry Cooper bout in 1963. 

By the end of the 1930s Sam was also pursuing a career as a talented baritone singer and during World War 2 toured military bases with the Army Classical Music Group. He sang ina number ofBBC productions, but resisted further offers, returning to art to teach drawing at Goldsmiths from 1949 until 1965 when his highly disciplined methods fell out of favour and he took up a post at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art. He taught there until he retired in 1985, but continued life drawing classes at Poole Arts Centre until shortly before his death in December 1991. 

:: A portrait of Sam Rabin by Allan Woolff is in the collection of Poole Museum. 

:: If you have a connection with or memory of Sam Rabin, please contact Sharon at sharon.w.taylor@gmail.com 


Sam Rabin as Mendoza

Sharon's original sketch of Sam in the 1934 film The Scarlet PImpernel