Sam Rabin versus Black Eagle

Illustration © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society. Catalogue information based on the catalogue raisonné by David Cleall. For this and full details of the exhibitions cited, see the links below. Any auction prices quoted may not include all fees and taxes, such as VAT and Artist's Resale Right charges.

Sam Rabin versus Black Eagle

Sam Rabin versus Black Eagle, 1934
Oil on canvas, 43.5 cm x 33.3 cm

'Sam Rabin [1903–91], a painter and sculptor trained at the Slade School, has always been interested in boxing and wrestling and at one time represented Great Britain in the Olympic Games. William Roberts first knew him as an artist, then met him again later on when he went to watch all-in wrestling matches. Sam Rabin had an exhibition of paintings at the Leicester Galleries in 1960, mainly boxing subjects' – Tate Gallery 1965 catalogue, p. 16. He appears as the champion wrestler in Alexander Korda's film The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and as the Jewish prize-fighter, Mendoza, in Harold Young's The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Black Eagle was the wrestling name of (Wilfred) Robert Adams (c.1900–1965). Adams was born in Georgetown, British Guiana. Having trained as a teacher, after arriving in Britain in the 1920s he was forced to earn a living in low-paid jobs, such as labouring, before a sports promoter encouraged him to become a professional wrestler. As the Black Eagle, he became heavyweight champion of the British Empire. In 1931 he was a founder member of Dr Harold Moody's League of Coloured Peoples. He had produced and acted in amateur stage productions in British Guiana, and in 1934 he began appearing as a supporting player in films. In 1938 he starred in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones at Cambridge's Arts Theatre, repeating the role for the BBC in 1938 – he had earlier become the first black actor to appear on British television. He later returned to British Guiana, becoming headmaster of a school and also working in the government's information department. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has entries on both men.
The WrestlingClassics website lists several fights involving either Rabin or Black Eagle in London in 1934, but any record of a London fight between the two of them around that date has proved elusive. It is therefore possible that Roberts imagined the scene shown in the painting after having seen each of them fighting other opponents and also fights involving neither of them – see Wrestling Scene 1934.
PROVENANCE: Stephen Tennant > Sir Edward Marsh > Contemporary Art Society (1953) > National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (1954)
EXHIBITION HISTORY: Lefevre Gallery (1) 1935, Bath 1935, Leeds 1938, CEMA tour 1942, Tate Gallery 1965

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