Heath Robinson’s Home Life @ the Heath Robinson Museum

This is another fabulous exhibition from my favourite small London museum, the Heath Robinson Museum up in sunny Pinner. The shiny new museum building is divided into just two galleries: one has a permanent display of Heath Robinson’s life and work, of which I found the most interesting aspect to be his ‘serious’ illustrations for classic literature, including some Shakespeare plays, and figurative watercolours which have a dreamy, innocent beauty.

The other gallery is devoted to temporary exhibitions, not all of which are directly about Heath Robinson himself. The current one, Heath Robinson’s Home Life, which runs until 24 February 2019, is about the great man, and focuses on the theme of domestic life which was the subject of much of his work in the second part of his career.

Social history background

Even before the First World War broke out HR had begun supplying comic cartoons to popular magazines, and humorous illustrations for advertising campaigns (as described in the excellent exhibition Heath Robinson’s World of Advertising which the Museum hosted earlier this year).

After the war most of the luxury book illustration work dried up and HR became more reliant on his humorous work. The collapse of the luxury book market was just a small element in major social upheavals. Few people could now afford domestic servants at pre-war levels. Improved public transport meant people could live in suburbs which were built further and further from old city centres. The new post-war suburban houses were generally small, and it became fashionable for the middle classes to live in flats.

Small flats in new apartment blocks, smaller, more constricted suburban households, the absence of servants to perform all those little chores – all these presented a wealth of comic opportunities because they all suggested crazy, new-fangled, and over-complex machines to replace the servants or make the most of cramped living quarters.

The exhibition

The 60 or so prints, illustrations, cartoons, books and magazine spreads in this exhibition all focus on this theme, gently satirising the new style of living, new fashionable flats, new architecture and new popular fads.

Working chronologically, the exhibition kicks off with a set of four illustrations HR did for the The Sketch magazine in 1921 generically titled ‘Heath Robinson does away with servants’, showing a range of contraptions to replace the now missing servants.

The spare room by William Heath Robinson

The spare room by William Heath Robinson

In 1929 Heath Robinson contributed a series to The Sunday Graphic featuring moveable walls and other gadgets to make the best use of cramped living space. In 1932 he produced a further six coloured drawings for The Sketch collectively titled ‘An Ideal Home’. All these are on display here.

The Gadgets

It is interesting that by this time The Sketch can talk about HR’s ‘worldwide reputation for inventing gadgets’. In fact in the following year, 1934, he was invited to design ‘an ideal home’ for the Ideal Home Exhibition. He first made designs of a tumbledown house – actually named ‘The Gadgets’ – with the walls cut away so you can see various ingenious devices. Then the drawings were turned into a large-scale model which was actually displayed at the exhibition.

This exhibition displays the early series of ‘Ideal Home’ cartoons published in 1933 and rare photographs of the construction of Heath Robinson’s house at the Ideal Home Exhibition. The model measured 50 foot by 30 foot and was 20 feet high. It was peopled with more than thirty life-like moving figures, all about half life-size, and engaged in daily tasks, assisted by numerous complex contraptions.

Contemporary postcard of William Heath Robinson's 'Ideal Home' - "The Gadgets" displayed at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at London Olympia in 1934

Contemporary postcard of William Heath Robinson’s ‘Ideal Home’ – “The Gadgets” displayed at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at London Olympia in 1934

The Gadgets provided the inspiration for the opening scenes of the Wallace and Gromit film The Wrong Trousers which you can watch on a video display at the show. The HR Museum also displays a scale model of The Gadgets next door, in the permanent gallery, built in 2016 by Estera Badelita. If you insert a pound in the slot, the house comes to life and the people move around performing their ridiculous activities.

How to…

In 1936 HR got together with his neighbour K.R.G. Browne to produce the classic humorous book, How to Live in a Flat, Browne’s drily satirical prose illustrated by 100 or so beautifully crisp and clear comical drawings satirising modernism in architecture and design.

Earlier drawings in the exhibition demonstrated quite a use of shading and shadow to create depth to the illustrations. Take a classic like How to take advantage of the Savoy Orphean dance music broadcast by the BBC without disturbing your neighbour in the flat below.

How to take advantage of the Savoy Orphean dance music broadcast by the BBC without disturbing your neighbour in the flat below by William Heath Robinson

‘How to take advantage of the Savoy Orphean dance music broadcast by the BBC without disturbing your neighbour in the flat below’ by William Heath Robinson

Compare that with any of the illustrations from How to Live in a Flat. It seems to me that HR made these later illustrations deliberately crisp and clear, with little or no shading, in order to mimic the bright lines of modernist architecture, a clean, trim style which adds tremendously to the book’s appeal.

Holiday joys in modern flats by William Heath Robinson

‘Holiday joys in modern flats’ from How To Live in a Flat by William Heath Robinson

The book proved a surprise bestseller and the publishers asked the pair to produce more, leading, over the next few years, to a whole series: How To Make A Garden Grow, How To Be a Motorist and – a crucial book of timeless relevance – How To be A Perfect Husband. The motorist book contains, as you might expect, innumerable pictures of complex car-based contraptions. But the husband book is, arguably, more drily humorous.

How to go to bed without disturbing the household from How to be A Perfect Husband by William Heath Robinson

‘How to go to bed without disturbing the household’ from How To Be A Perfect Husband by William Heath Robinson

The death of Browne in 1940 brought the original series to an end, but HR then teamed up with another neighbour, the journalist Cecil Hunt, to continue the series, now with a war-time theme. This resulted in How To Make The Best of Things (1940), How To Build a New World (1940) and How to Run A Communal Home. I particularly liked the cartoon showing a harassed music teacher giving piano lessons to about a dozen children all playing pianos organised in a circle at the same time!

Designs for China

The exhibition also features an unexpected side venture of Heath Robinson’s. In 1927 he was asked to design a range of nursery ware for Soane and Smith, a Knightsbridge store. He produced sixteen designs based on nursery rhymes which ended up being applied to cups, saucers, plates, cereal bowls, teapots, sugar bowls, mugs, porringers, egg cups and even a soup tureen!

A distinctive feature of the designs was a delightful frieze made up of cartoon children’s faces running round the rims of all these receptacles, as you can see in the examples below.

Nursery china designed by William Heath Robinson (1927)

Nursery china designed by William Heath Robinson (1927)

This is another charming, funny and uplifting exhibition from the Heath Robinson Museum.


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Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Heath Robinson’s World of Advertising @ the Heath Robinson Museum

His subjects were human nature and particularly those individuals who had an inflated view of their own importance. (Geoffrey Beare, curator and author of the exhibition book)

By the late 1890s Heath Robinson had established his reputation as a cartoonist for magazines like Tatler and Punch and as an illustrator of luxury editions of Shakespeare. The 1890s and the Edwardian decade were the heyday of English book illustrations and Heath Robinson even wrote and illustrated some books of his own (for example, The adventures of Uncle Lubin, 1902).

Unsurprisingly, the Great War changed all that. For a while there was a greater appetite for humorous stories and cartoons to keep up the spirits of people both at the Front and back home, and HR provided a steady stream of morale-boosting cartoons, many now collected in Heath Robinson’s Great War.

But in 1915 his career took a new turn. He was approached by Johnny Walker’s distillery and asked to produce cartoons showing how their trademark Scotch whiskey was manufactured. HR visited the factory in Scotland, not to produce a documentary record, but to spot ideas for his fantastical contraptions. The result was a set of cartoons showing the manufacture of the holy elixir using a series of ever more complex and ramshackle devices.

In the filtering vats at Kilmarnock by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

In the filtering vats at Kilmarnock by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

After the Great War the market for the kind of luxury books Heath Robinson had illustrated dried up. Cartoon work continued in a new generation of magazines, and he continued to ply his trade there. But it was in the post-war 1920s that the modern advertising trade really took off, and HR was poised to take advantage of it.

This fabulous exhibition at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner (just five minutes from Pinner tube station on the Metropolitan line) brings together a choice selection of Heath Robinson’s extensive work in advertising illustration.

It’s estimated that between the 1915 Johnny Walker commission and his death in 1944, Heath Robinson worked for over 100 companies, making drawings and cartoons to promote goods as varied as asbestos roofs, bread, carbon paper, tarmac, antiseptics, bespoke tailoring and leather car seats.

In fact, just the list of products he promoted gives a kind of surreal insight into the realities of 1920s and 1930s social life.

The exhibition displays over 60 original artworks on the walls, as well as 20 or so examples of printed material from contemporary magazines. The Heath Robinson consists of one room given over to the permanent collection and one room given over to changing exhibitions. One room doesn’t sound much but it is a room jam-packed with gadgets, jokes and gags.

It is rare to hear laughter in an ‘art’ gallery, but when I visited, the room was full of people pointing out and laughing at the confabulated contraptions and heroic absurdities of his pictures.

‘Heath Robinson’s Golf Course’, design for a biscuit tin, Peek Frean (c.1925) © William Heath Robinson Trust

Heath Robinson’s Golf Course, design for a biscuit tin for Peek Frean (c.1925) © William Heath Robinson Trust

The exhibition focuses on sets of work produced for particular clients, showing how he elaborated ideas around a central theme. As far as I could see, he took three strategies or approaches to the commissions:

  • a comic account of the production process itself, requiring as much tottering and patched up preposterous machinery as possible (as with Johnny Walker)
  • a humorous look at the product though history
  • the with/without approach i.e. showing the benefits of buying/using/eating product X

A good example of the historical approach is a set of cartoons showing the benefits which would have been brought to various historical figures if only they had had the opportunity to purchase luxury leather goods from Connolly Brothers of Wandsworth. Figures like Mr and Mrs Noah, Alfred the Great, and William the Conqueror are shown benefiting from Connolly Brothers luxury leather products.

William the Conqueror appreciates the comforts of leather by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

William the Conqueror appreciates the comforts of leather by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Heath Robinson developed a close working relationship with Connolly Brothers, who manufactured a wide array of leather goods including car seats, car hoods, furniture, bags, cases and so on. His first work for them was a 12-page booklet which they used to promote their products at that year’s Motor show and was so successful that they didn’t quite commission a new one annually, but by the end of his career he’d produced a total of 12 books and some 200 cartoons for them, and there are extensive selections here from three volumes, Light on Leather (1922), Leather breeding on the Wandle (1927) and The Connolly Chronicles (1933).

In the same vein are cartoons promoting macaroni, sugar, paper, a herd of thoroughbred pigs, pianos and the Great West Railway.

I particularly liked the set made for the toffee manufacturer John Mackintosh in 1921, which Heath Robinson titled ‘A half hour in Toffee Town’ – especially the illustration in the centre-right, of how they get the chocolate to completely cover each individual toffee, which involves a watering can, a pulley and an umbrella.

A half hour in Toffee Town by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

A half hour in Toffee Town by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

In a set like this each individual incident is, apparently, called a vignette. Individual vignettes could be extracted from the larger context and recycled. Thus single vignettes Heath Robinson drew for the manufacturers of Izal, an antiseptic product, were issued as postcards, and even printed on toilet paper. Another client used Heath Robinson illustrations on blotting paper.

These are all examples of the proliferation of the image across all kinds of products and new media in the 1920s. Heath Robinson was one of the graphic artists who rewrote the rules on how we communicate commercially: replacing heavy, Victorian, copy-dominated ads with a focus on imagery which tells stories.

Take one of his most famous works, the Hovis ads, a classic example of the ‘with/without’ approach mentioned above, and of the new image-focused approach.

'Hovis, the bread of health' by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

‘Hovis, the bread of health’ by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

As well as lots of hilarious pictures, and fascinating social history about the products he was promoting, the exhibition also allows you to trace the development of Heath Robinson’s style.

Although his work was always too varied to defy sweeping generalisation, by and large what you see is a progression from a turn-of-the-century, Arthur Rackham-esque interest in the grotesque, the crabbed and the eccentric, often set inside cramped or spooky interiors – to a much sparser, cleaner, and possibly Art Deco-influenced line in the 1930s.

Thus the elaborate stone setting of the vaults in the Johnny Walker picture from 1915 (at the top of this review) could, at a stretch, be home to a troll or goblin. Although this reproduction is in black and white, the original was coloured in watercolour, adding to the sense of depth and density.

Compare and contrast with the clarity of line and the lack of shading in a picture like this, drawn some 20 years later to promote pianos manufactured by Firth Brothers. Even when the later pictures portray complex contraptions, the ones from the 1930s do so in a style which is somehow cleaner and crisper.

Some interesting pianos not made by Firth Brothers by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Some interesting pianos not made by Firth Brothers by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Summary

So do your funny bones a favour: get along to the Heath Robinson Museum and spend a happy hour chortling at the works of this great promoter of happiness, as well as picking up titbits of English social history, and enjoying the evolution and changing style of a great English humorist.

Credit

All Heath Robinson images reproduced with kind permission of the William Heath Robinson Trust and © The William Heath Robinson Trust.


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