The Art of William Heath Robinson by Geoffrey Beare (2003)

This is a comprehensive coffee-table-sized biography of William Heath Robinson, stuffed with scores of marvellous black-and-white and colour illustrations. It is a joy to hold, read and gaze at.

Heath Robinson has become a byword for preposterous contraptions, but the thing which comes across from this slow, thorough and breezily-written narrative of his life and work, is the extraordinary diversity of his output. He produced a huge variety of types of illustrations, cartoons, commercial art and atmospheric watercolours. In fact at least one of the reviews on Amazon laments that there aren’t enough of the crazy contraption pictures. Well, there are plenty of books devoted solely to Heath Robinson’s absurdist gadgets: this book sets out to present the full range and skilled accomplishment of the man.

Range

Heath Robinson was born in 1870 and died in 1944. His father and brothers were magazine illustrators, so early on doors were opened and contacts arranged. Rather than attempt any kind of overview of his life (which you can get from the Wikipedia article), I am just going to give examples of the types of image he created.

Black and white Illustrations

He did colour and b&w illustrations for Shakespeare and children’s classics e.g. The Water Babies. His edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows the influence of the Japanese prints which first arrived in the 1860s and 1870s, and had become commonplace by the turn of the century. White – big white spaces, contrasted with very fine, one-line outlines i.e. not roughed-in or sketched but clinically precise defined lines. And black, the use of solid undifferentiated black for trees, buildings, outlines, whatever – to create extremely clear, classic, crisp images.

Following his illustrated Shakespeare, Heath Robinson suggested an illustrated edition of Rabelais’ late medieval comic masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel (1904), which allowed him full reign to depict grotesque and sometimes scary human figures and faces, unlike anything else he ever did.

Coloured illustrations

Distinctly different from the black and white line illustrations are the fabulously atmospheric colour illustrations he did during the same period. Some of the Shakespeare ones are stunning in their delicate colouring and phenomenal detail.

But my favourites are the extraordinarily vivid colour illustrations he did for Rudyard Kipling’s 15-page poem, A Song of the English, a hymn to the British Empire, its farflung capitals, and the toil and risks taken by the sailors who bind it together through trade and war.

Authored books

Heath Robinson only wrote and illustrated three books of his own, but they are masterpieces of weird imagination. In the earliest, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), the eponymous uncle falls asleep looking after a baby, which is promptly stolen by the mythical Bag-bird, resulting in Lubin taking trips around the world to find and bring the baby back.

Along the way Uncle Lubin invents a variety of devices from an air-ship to a ramshackle submarine. You can see in these illustrations the seeds of the later career concocting crazy contraptions.

War satire

The advent of the Great War dried up the market for luxury illustrated books like the ones Heath Robinson had been illustrating. Paper was short, tastes had changed. Luckily Heath Robinson had been busy developing a tidy side-line in cartoons and commercial work (adverts), alongside the book illustrations. When one of his early publishers went bankrupt he was able to switch career into providing cartoons for the growing number of up-market weekly magazines. Thus Heath Robinson managed parallel careers as illustrator and humorous artist until the slump in the book trade in the early 1920s killed the market for illustration.

His facility with comic cartoons is exemplified in a series of three books of satirical drawings about the war itself – Some “Frightful” War Pictures 1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and the brilliantly titled The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917).

Given how grotesque we know he could be from the Rabelais pictures, the notable thing about the war cartoons is their restraint – any animus is completely subdued to the comic end. Although there are sometimes silly contraptions involved, for the most part the cartoons focus on absurd activities, like blowing cold air at British soldiers in the trenches to give them neckache, and so on.

Twenty years later the Hun were back, this time in Nazi uniforms. Heath Robinson embarked on another series of cartoon satirising the enemy. But you can see at a glance what has happened in those twenty years, namely he has become the Heath Robinson of fame and legend, a byword for elaborately home-made machines, for preposterously complex and unnecessarily convoluted devices concocted to carry out simple or absurdist ends.

You can also see how the human figures have evolved. By the 1940s they have become much more standardised. Although often characterful, the figures are far more restrained than the fatter, guffawing figures from the Great War.

The deliberate sameyness of the human figures, their frequent reduction to emotionless ciphers, is to emphasise the craziness of the contraptions. To put it another way, the human figures become more sober and realistic in exactly the degree that the machines become preposterous and improbable.

Heath Robinson is quoted as saying that the comic result is partly achieved by making the people involved take their operations with deadly seriousness. In the Great War cartoons fat sergeants and guffawing sergeant majors are laughing at the silliness of their tactics. In the WWII cartoons, the po-faces  of the participants are part of the point.

Cartoons

It was in the 1920s that Heath Robinson really acquired a wide reputation for the outrageous contraptions which he created in hundreds and hundreds of freelance cartoons for a wide range of magazines.

Adverts

He also applied his by now distinctive style and imagination to create adverts for various products.

How to…

In the 1930s Heath Robinson collaborated with the humorous writer K.R.G. Browne on a set of comic ‘How to…’ books designed to take the mickey out of modern living – How to live in a flat (1936), How to make a garden grow, How to be a perfect husband, How to be a motorist.

These still rely on preposterous exaggeration for their comic effect, but they are notable for having a much cleaner line, much more white space. The amusement is partly in their aerodynamic Art Deco lines.

Just a glance back at the high-contraption works makes you realise he was deploying a completely different, stripped-down style in these books, which relies on a relatively simple (if absurd) idea for its humour – the one-trick idea of his collaborator – rather than the intricately tortuous chain of machinery characteristic of his own invention, such as:

Watercolours

So by the 1920s Heath Robinson had established the cartoon style for which he would become known as ‘the Gadget King’; his name was well on the way to entering the language to describe any jerry-rigged, home-made and bodged-up contraption.

But the tendency of this brilliant book, throughout, is to emphasise the phenomenal technical skills which underlay this achievement, specifically his astonishing gift of linemanship and draughtsmanship, apparent from the earliest of his luxury illustrations of Shakespeare, of Hans Christian Anderson, the Water Babies and so on.

And in particular the book brings out a completely overlooked area of his achievement, Heath Robinson’s astonishing mastery of watercolour. Right at the start of his career Heath Robinson had ambitions to become a landscape artist and, although the need to earn a living drove him into illustrations and then cartoon work, he never ceased painting beautiful, atmospheric watercolours for his own pleasure.

Many of these were published in this 2003 volume for the first time, in large-scale illustrations printed on high quality paper which really bring out their delicate beauty.

Hard not to be thrilled by the delicacy and taste of these sensitive, evocative watercolours. Beare points out how Heath Robinson uses a unity of tone i.e. the colours are mostly from the same part of the colour spectrum in order to convey a subdued but subtly varied impression.

Dulwich Gallery and the Heath Robinson Museum

This beautiful book was originally published to accompany an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery which I visited, back in 2003. The author says the exhibition and book are designed to encourage support for the idea of establishing a permanent home for Heath Robinson’s work, as cartoonist, illustrator and serious artist.

So it’s lovely to come full circle, because what made me take this book down off my shelf was the fact that I recently visited the new(ish) Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north-west London, which was opened as recently as October 2016 and which, despite being rather small, provides a perfect setting to display a surprising amount of this wonderful artist’s inspiring, uplifting and often very funny work.

P.S.

Heath Robinson named his cat Saturday Morning.


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