Scene Through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The British Society of Wood Engravers (SWE) was founded just over 100 years ago, in 1920, by leading artists including Lucien Pissarro and John Nash. Its aim was to promote wood engraving for modern artists.

This lovely exhibition, ‘Scene Through Wood’, was first shown at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 2020 to commemorate the Society’s centenary. Now, a few years later, it has come to the small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north west London and you really should go and see it.

‘Scene Through Wood’ brings together about 70 wood engravings, from the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Society of Wood Engravers’ collection as well as private collections, and by artist engravers around the world, including Britain, Europe, Russia, Canada, the USA, China and Japan. It is curated by noted engraver and artist Anne Desmet (RA).

The exhibition amounts not only to a visual feast of some of the finest wood engravings from the past 100 years, but introduces you to some 50 not-so-well-known artists who have specialised in this format. And, as you slowly patiently make your way round the exhibits, you begin to get a feel of the great variety of styles and approaches which are possible in this monochrome format.

‘The Cyder Feast’ by Edward Calvert (1828)

Sections

The exhibition is arranged into a number of sections and so is my review.

1. Beginnings

‘Beginnings’ starts with by far the earliest piece in the exhibition, ‘Christ in Limbo’ by Albrecht Dürer from 1510. Dürer was one of the first European artists to use printmaking and produced produced around 346 woodcuts during his career.

But woodcuts are different from wood engravings, and wood engraving, apparently, has the distinction of being one of the only art forms to have been invented in Britain. By the 1770s Thomas Bewick was engraving end-grain boxwood using bespoke tools. His ‘invention’ quickly spread around the industrialised world and was adapted for a variety of purposes, commercial and fine arts. The first display case contains a selection of steel engraving tools, and a roundel of end-grain boxwood the surface of which has been ground perfectly smooth and level and ready for engraving.

Put very simply, the artist etches a design into the hardwood which is then inked. The wood which has remained etched takes the ink and this part is printed on paper when the inked block is applied to it. The parts of the wood which have been gouged, striated, etched or scratched do not take the ink and thus show up white in the print.

Early experimenters included the prolific poet-artist, William Blake, Edward Calvert and the wonderful painter Samuel Palmer, all represented here. When I was a teenager I read the Complete William Blake, memorised the Songs of Innocence and Experience, devoted many hours to memorising Blake’s convoluted personal mythology. But later, in my 30s, I found myself warming very much to the delicate, mysterious magic of Samuel Palmer’s paintings. ‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ is the only wood engraving Palmer ever made and it’s tiny.

‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ by Samuel Palmer (1826)

Size matters

This brings me to a general point about the exhibition as a whole, which is size. It would be easy for your initial impression of the exhibition to be that all the works are a bit samey. Almost all the exhibits are black and white. And they also tend to be on the small size, A4 size or so. Half a dozen are strikingly bigger than this but plenty are smaller and some are minuscule.

Hence the gallery supplies a number of magnifying glasses because the thing about wood prints, as a general rule, is that you really have to lean and and study them. Oil paintings and watercolours can afford to be on a huge scale and make great sweeping gestures of colour which immediately leap out and grab you. Almost all these wood engravings, by contrast, require you to lean in and pay attention.

2. A sense of scale

In fact the second section in the exhibition is called ‘A sense of scale’ and explores the question of size, exploring the range of sizes possible with wood engravings, juxtaposing the tiny Samuel Palmer with the biggest thing in the show, ‘Mirage I’ (2014) by the Chinese artist Shi Lei. From a distance the Shi Lei piece looks like the face of a man wearing glasses regarding us with a withering look, except that the entire image appears to be bubbling and melting, maybe some post-nuclear holocaust atrocity.

‘Mirage I’ by Shi Lei (2014)

Only when you look closely do you realise that a) it’s a composite image which has been created out of nine separate blocks  and then stuck together, and b) that the overall image is, rather in the style of Salvador Dali, itself made up of figures of writhing naked bodies. Because of the uneasy, rather sickening effect, this was by far my least favourite image in the exhibition.

David Gentleman

In fact, talking of size and scale, arguably both the largest and the smallest engravings cited in the show were produced by the same artist, David Gentleman (born 1930), one of the most successful commercial artists of his day. Because among his huge range of work are:

1. Postage stamps commissioned by Royal Mail, in this case a 9p Christmas stamp from 1977 showing a partridge in a pear tree.

Christmas stamp by David Gentleman (1977)

2. And the huge mural lining the platforms at Charing Cross underground station in London. I doubt if many other wood engravings have been reproduced at such scale.

Mural at Charing Cross underground station by David Gentleman (1979)

3. The theatre of life

This is followed by a wall of images all falling under the loose heading ‘The theatre of life’. This brings together images of types of people or human activities, such as:

  • Peter Blake’s engravings of four characters from a circus (1974 to 78)
  • dark and powerful images from the 1930s depicting the Great Depression in America Clare Leighton
  • images of ‘Bowlplayers in Sunlight’ by Gwendolen Raverat (1922), the first woman engraver to come to prominence

Comparing and contrasting these figures made you realise that engraving does best when it goes with the tendency to stylisation intrinsic in the form. Trying to achieve the sinuous curves and slow of organic objects is a big ask for an art form which works with chisels and incising tools, and so I thought a piece like Point-to-Point by Rachel Reckitt (1936) didn’t really work. Or I didn’t like the way it worked. By contrast in Le Sporting Bar (1929), it seemed to me that Ian Macnab had worked with the grain of the form to create a kind of semi-geometric stylisation which I enjoyed. But then I love Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticists and all varieties of geometric modernism.

The standout piece in this section was a much more recent work, ‘Fallen Angel’ (2006) by Hilary Paynter, not particularly geometric, certainly not a thing of hard edges and angles, a showcase of how soft and mysterious and rather wonderful a wood engraving can be.

Fallen Angel’ by Hilary Paynter (2006)

4. Construction and destruction

Following on from this is a section titled ‘Construction and destruction’. If we’ve just been looking at human recreation, sports and leisure time, here are people at war, or coping with fires and floods. It includes:

  • ‘Minesweeping Gear’ by James Taylor Dolby (1947)
  • ‘Northern Waters’ (1942) and ‘Sharp Attack’ (1944) by Geoffrey Wales
  • ‘Mill Fire’ (1997) and ‘Deluge’ (2000) by Ian Corfe-Stephens
  • ‘Shot’ (2010) by Chris Pig where ambulancemen and bystanders crowd round someone lying on a stretcher who has, apparently, just been shot

For me the standout piece, and one which typifies many of the strengths of wood engraving, is a marvellous piece by Hilary Paynter, titled ‘Tree with a Long Memory’ (2003).

Tree with a Long Memory’ by Hilary Paynter (2003)

This is a classic example of the need to lean in and look closer at a wood engraving. The more I looked, the more the piece delivered up its wonders. For a start it took me a few moments to realise that the shape of the image represents the trunk of a mature tress which has been sliced across, as when a tree is cut down with a chainsaw revealing the rings of growth for you to count.

Anyway, only when I really peered into the image did I realise that it contains a wonderful set of symbols of humanity’s achievements over the past 3,000 years or so, namely Stonehenge, the Parthenon and a Roman amphitheatre (at the bottom), what might be a Renaissance encampment such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold hanging upside down in the middle, on the left rows and rows of white crosses as in a First World War cemetery, in the top left a jet plane looping the loop, and on the top right the sinewy shape of a 6-lane motorway snaking into the distance. And on the lower right-hand side the timeless labour of working the land, ploughing and sowing which was once done by horse-drawn ploughs, now by diesel-driven machinery, but the eternal round of sowing and reaping which is the basis of all civilisation, the row upon row of furrows echoing the growth lines of the tree.

5. The built environment

Next up is a section titled ‘The built environment’. Given the form’s predisposition to angles and edges, buildings, rooftops, windows, streets of terraced houses and so on are tailor made subjects for engraving. Thus I loved the very first piece in this section, ‘Yorkshire’ (1920) by the noted Modernist artist Edward Wadsworth.

‘Yorkshire’ by Edward Wadsworth (1920)

This section is dominated by an impressive set of unusually large engravings of a view of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, each coloured differently, by the exhibition curator, Anne Desmet. Desmet is on record as saying the sequence was in part inspired by Monet’s set of paintings of the facade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. They can be viewed on Desmet’s website.

This section also contains some interesting technical experiments by Desmet. ‘Babel Tower Revisited’ (2018) is round and uses slightly convex glass cover so give the impression the image is bulging out into the room. ‘Fires of London’ (2015) in which slender prints of engravings of the Great Fire have been cut out to form narrow tall images and glued onto 18 razor shells.

It also contains the striking (and tinted) ‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004).

‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004)

6. Storytelling (books)

Wood engraving is nowadays both an independent, creative art form and a versatile medium for commercial images. A display case demonstrates how the tendency to simplify and abstract subject matter can result in very striking images which can be used for book illustration. There are illustrations of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (by Garrick Palmer, 1994) and Goblin Market (Hilary Paynter, 2003).

More commercially, editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been printed with dramatic wood engraved front covers by Andrew Davidson (2013). And, best of all, the fabulous engravings produced by Chris Wormell for Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ sequence of novels, which are outstanding.

‘La Belle Sauvage.’ Cover illustration for ‘The Book of Dust’ by Philip Pullman (2017) based on a wood engraving by Chris Wormell

This section also contains:

  • ‘The Crucifixion’ (1927) by the famous poet-artist David Jones
  • ‘The Entombment’ (1930) by Claughton Pellew
  • ‘The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God’ (1932) by John Farleigh, for George Bernard Shaw
  • Illustrations for ‘The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta’ (1933) by Eric Ravilious
  • a vivid scene from ‘Moby Dick’ (1974) by Garrick Palmer
  • Illustrations for ‘Erewhon’ (1932) by Blair Hughes-Stanton

And another series or set of images (cf Desant’s Brooklyn Bridge), this time a set of 9 highly detailed studies of a bust of the Roman emperor ‘Marcus Aurelius’, depicted with the opposite of abstraction, with astonishing photographic accuracy by Simon Brett (2002).

Another part of the display tells us that wood engravings have been used to create entirely text-free books of illustration, where the reader is free to verbalise a sequence of images, exemplified by the work of the Belgian artist, Franz Masereel, whose text-free books of narrative images – such as ‘The Idea’ and ‘Story Without Words’, both on display here – were very popular, especially in Germany, during the era of silent movies, and can be counted among the forerunners of modern graphic novels.

I’d never really given it much thought but those labels you get which you can write your name on and stick in the front page of good quality books, bookplates, often feature exquisite miniature wood engravings. Examples included here are by Joan Hassall, 1946, Vladimir Kortovitch, 1990, and Grigory Babitch, 2004.

7. Abstraction and detail

This section is dominated by a work by a very distinctive artist who produced woodcuts and engravings of wonderful, beguiling and mind-bending visual puzzles, the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher.

‘Fish and Scales’ by Maurits Cornelis Escher (1959)

8. The natural world

This is the biggest section, with the most examples, and so a fascinating opportunity to analyse and compare the very wide range of wood engraving styles available. There’s a ‘Stonehenge’ from 1962 by Gertrude Hermes which looks as if the sky is made out of angrily cross-hatched icebergs.

By complete contrast is ‘Dead Trees – Sheppey’ by Monica Poole (1976) where the trees look as if they’re touching a sky which is like an inverted pond, with dynamic ripples spreading out from the trees’ touch in a surreal manner which echoes Paul Nash in the 1930s.

There are also two different artist’s views of a car headlights at night illuminating a road scene through the windscreen, ‘Through the Windscreen’ (1929) by Gertrude Hermes and ‘The Night Drive’ (1937) by Joan Hassall.

Probably my favourite work was ‘Long-tailed Duck and Whiting’ by Colin See-Paynton (1988), possibly because the fish look identical to the fish in Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks. Aren’t the ducks extraordinarily realistic? From that level of precise naturalistic detail to another large and pleasing, semi-abstract image, in the slightly mysterious Paul Nash style:

‘Under water’ by Monica Poole (1986)

Go see and enjoy this lovely, fascinating, eye-opening and deeply pleasurable exhibition.

The video (6’24”)

Anne Desmet RA is one of only three wood engravers to be elected as Academicians in the Royal Academy’s nearly 250-year history. In this video she takes us through each step in creating a wood engraving, from tracing the original drawing through to printing a first proof.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

John Hassall @ the Heath Robinson Museum

In the early twentieth century John Hassall was one of Britain’s best known commercial artists. Starting his career in 1895, he quickly developed an impressive reputation as a book illustrator, a humorous cartoonist for postcards and magazines, an art school founder and teacher, a painter in oils, consummate clubman, and a designer of toys, figurines, pottery and nursery decor. But it was through his commercial illustrations, and especially his posters – for travel companies, political causes, theatre and panto, and a host of well-known brands – that he made his name in an age when advertising hoardings were known as ‘the poor man’s art gallery’.

In the course of a hard working career Hassall designed some 600 posters, illustrated some 150 books and much more. By 1905 one magazine could dub him ‘the King of Posters’.

Skegness is SO Bracing – the famous poster featuring the jolly fisherman designed for the East Coast seaside town by artist John Hassall. Hassall was paid £10 (1908)

The small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum up in Pinner is hosting an excellent exhibition showcasing the full range of Hassall’s work, along with loads of photos, caricatures and paintings of the great man at work, and correspondence, brochures and whatnot relating to his many additional activities as art teacher and founder member of the of London Sketch Club and of the Savage Club.

Potted biography

John Hassall was born in Kent in 1868 but, when he left school at 18, art wasn’t his first choice. After twice failing entry to The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he emigrated to Manitoba in Canada in 1888 to begin farming with his brother Owen. The exhibition includes some fascinating correspondence describing, and a set of sketches depicting, the tough life of rural Canada, as well as a couple of wonderful illustrations of well wrapped-up children hunting wildlife in the snow (a moose and a walrus).

Boys hunting moose by John Nassall

It was only when one of his illustrations of daily life in Canada was published in the London Graphic magazine that he decided to return to England and try his luck with an artistic career in 1890. On the advice of friends, he went to study on the Continent, first in Antwerp, then in Paris. He met a fellow artist, married and moved back to London in 1894, when a couple of paintings were accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

But it was only in 1895 that he was given an introduction to the firm of David Allen and Sons, leading printers of theatre poster. At the interview he was asked to demonstrate his abilities and quickly knocked out a sketch for a poster of the fashionable hit, The French Maid. He was hired on the spot and, over the next four years, went on to produce almost 600 posters.

Poster promoting Pontings department store in Kensington High Street by John Hassall

The range and variety of posters (and postcards and book illustrations) on display in this exhibition allows you to trace Hassall’s development as a commercial artist, and his deployment of different styles for different purposes.

Early influences

The very earliest posters, including the fully worked-up version of The French Maid design, included here, very clearly demonstrate the influence of the French style of posters. In fact the 1890s was by way of being a golden age of poster art, technological advances in printing allowing for an explosion of colours and styles, exploited by artists like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha. This in turn triggered a craze among connoisseurs to collect poster art and Hassall had arrived back in London just as the craze arrived with him, partly triggered by a major exhibition in 1894. Here he is, in the early days, very much channeling the elongated, exotic and semi-abstract feel of Alphone Mucha’s Art Nouveau designs.

The Daughters of Babylon by John Hassall 1897

But as the exhibition shows, after just a few years Hassall had moved a long way from his Continental origins and developed his own, very distinctive style. The exhibition curator usefully defines this as consisting of:

  • bold outlines
  • flat colours
  • minimal letting
  • large areas of negative space

which Hassall combined to produce ‘an engagingly cheery style.’

I think that phrase about ‘negative space’ refers to the way that the use of shading to indicate perspective and/or light sources is dropped in order to produce flattened and simplified images. Probably the most extreme example of this is this almost surreal poster promoting the joys of Morecambe. Flat colours, bold outlines, minimal lettering, large areas of negative space. Look how far he’d come from his languid and cluttered, fin-de-siecle, Mucha phase!

Poster promoting Morecambe as a holiday destination by John Hassall

Hassall produced posters promoting a number of seaside destinations, of which the one for Skegness (at top of this review) became iconic. In 1936 the town invited him for a VIP day to celebrate its success and awarded him a vellum certificate, displayed in the exhibition! The town now boasts a statue of the jolly fisherman.

The Skegness poster became so iconic that it is occasionally riffed on by later cartoonists: the exhibition features two examples, including a very funny one by Peter Brooks where the figure of the jolly fisherman is replaced by a swivel-eyed Jeremy Corbyn.

Book illustration

In 1899 Hassall took on his first book illustration project. In total he illustrated some 143 titles, not including jacket and spine designs. As you can imagine, many of these were for children’s books, some for older readers, such as the adventure stories of G.A. Henty, but most collections of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Making use of flat colours enclosed by thick black lines, his poster style was very adaptable for children’s books, and he produced many volumes of nursery rhymes and fairy stories, such as Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes (1909).

Cinderella enters the coach by John Hassall

In 1900 Hassall was commissioned by Laurence and Bullen of Covent Garden to design a range of nursery wallpaper friezes and lithographic prints for children. He produced a frieze of seven prints of children with their toys designed to be mass produced, sold and installed as a literal frieze around nursery walls. They were retailed by Libertys and other upmarket stores. You can see a slideshow of these on the Hillhouse antiques website.

The exhibition points out that J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, became an overnight sensation, generating piles of merchandising and spin-offs. As one of the leading illustrators of his day, Hassall contributed to the sensation with a series of six panels illustrating scenes from the play which are, to the modern eye, oddly flat and stylised. They resemble the stark simplifications of his toy friezes and in this particular scene, as Peter enters the children’s bedroom, you can see how it is liberally decorated with examples of Hassall’s own posters and friezes, a pleasing example of self-referentiality. In fact Hassall was deeply involved in the production: he drew the official poster and designed the cover of the programme, which also advertised these large-scale panels for two shillings each (10p in modern money).

Illustrated panel of Peter Pan by John Hassall (1907)

Also magazine covers: by this time his strikingly simple but effective designs made him a popular choice to provide cover illustrations for a wide variety of magazines such as the Scout magazine, and many others, on display here.

Pantomime

Pantomime is a form of theatre for children so his ability with cartoon and caricature was well suited to produce reams of posters for each season’s pantos.

Original antique theatre poster for the Drury Lane production of Babes In The Wood by the playwrights J. Hickory Wood and Arthur Collins. Poster by John Hassall (1907)

In fact the exhibition includes the complete set of 26 illustrations from a book titled The Pantomime ABC projected as a slideshow up on the gallery wall, with humorous and sometimes genuinely funny poems for each letter by Roland Carse.

The Great War

The First World War was actually the busiest time of Hassall’s career. He continued his commercial work but added a whole new stream of patriotic content, ranging from recruitment posters, to illustrations for patriotic pamphlets and songs, as well as personally touring the front in 1915, and working as a special constable.

The war posters are interesting because they feature iron-jawed, cleancut young men who are quite distinct from his commercial cartoon-style work. They’re the clearest proof that he could adapt his style quite drastically to suit the client and the need.

First World War recruitment poster by John Hassall (1916)

There are quite a few of the smaller cartoons, postcards, sheet music, pin badges and so on in a display case, the highlight of which, for me, is a copy of a satirical work he wrote and produced called Ye Berlyn Tapestrie a parody of the Bayeaux Tapestry featuring numerous examples of the perfidy of the beastly Hun.

Something the exhibition doesn’t include is any of the wonderfully realistic oil paintings depicting machines of war which Hassall made during the conflict. In these he applies all his skills he’s acquired over 20 years in the art of clear, striking composition, but infused with a wonderful ability to depict light and shade and depth. Its presence in stunning works like this (not in the exhibition) highlight how very much he excluded all these elements and abilities in his commercial work.

Short Seaplane by John Hassall (1915) The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery)

This section of the exhibition also showcases his broadly ‘political’ works, satirical cartoons about contemporary politics. These include a little sequence of cartoons produced in support of the little-known Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, an excellent cause which I think some brave and foolhardy souls ought to revive in our day.

Anti-suffrage cartoon by John Hassall (1912)

Pick a favourite

I loved all of it, I loved everything I saw. Hassall was a commercial artist who aimed to please, whose works are designed to make the viewer feel good, to associate a positive feeling with the product being sold, whether play or panto, shop or product, book or story – and it works. This is a hugely enjoyable, interesting and uplifting exhibition. I defy any visitor not to come out with a broad smile on their face.

Pick a favourite? Well in the midst of his immense productivity and hard work, Hassall found time to create uncommissioned art works which he submitted to serious exhibitions and competitions. These were generally storybook in style and took as their subject classic moments from English history, such as the morning of the battle of Agincourt.

I found them very appealing because they remind me, I think, of some of the long distant children’s books about history I read when I was very young. They are packed with crowds, soldiers or raiders, they have a rugged Edwardian masculinity and vividness which I really enjoyed. Here’s a photo I took of a detail of the painting ‘The morning before Agincourt’, which was exhibited in 1900. (Apologies for the terrible quality, the exhibition is held in a darkened room and I have a terrible camera. I include it to demonstrate what I mean by the ‘manliness’ of the figures in his ‘serious’ art works.)

Detail from ‘Morning before Agincourt’ by John Hassall (1903)

In these historical paintings Hassall took the opportunity to reintroduce those elements he so rigorously excluded from his commercial work. There is deep perspective, there are complicated crowds instead of a handful of isolated individuals, and, when you look closely, there is a deliberate blurring or mistiness about the faces which gives them a strange dignity, which somehow implies that you are seeing them through a time machine, their faces flickering and blurring through the distance of 500 years. In every way except for the patriotic storybook subject matter, as unlike the minimalist clarity of his posters and commercial work as can be.

Procession by John Hassall (1901)

But if I had to choose one out of all the works on show here, it would be a classic example of Hassall’s commercial poster art, a clear composition, limned with bold black lines in the style of a newspaper cartoon, all background detail kept to a bare minimum in order to focus your eye on the main character which is drawn with affectionate humour.

It’s titled ‘Treasure Trove’ and is an original artwork for a brand of whiskey but, intriguingly, nobody seems to know which one.  I think I was partly attracted because the fish look the dead spitting image of the fish which feature in the Tintin adventure, Red Rackham’s Treasure (and because both feature a man in an old-fashioned diving suit). I wonder whether Hergé knew and was influenced by Hassall’s work, by its clarity of composition, solid outlines and blocs of bare or negative space…

Treasure Trove by John Hassall (date unknown)


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

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.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

The Heath Robinson Museum, Pinner

The Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner Park, an easy 5-minute walk from Pinner Tube station up the Metropolitan Line, is an unalloyed joy and delight.

The Museum opened in October 2016 and houses some 1,000 artworks by this brilliant and prolific artist, cartoonist and illustrator. Not only is the collection a thing of joy and wonder, but the museum is sited next to an open-air cafe which serves yummy food, both set beside a tree-lined lake in the picturesque Pinner Memorial Gardens. It is a perfect Sunday outing.

The Heath Robinson Museum (right) next to Daisy's In The Park cafe (left)

The Heath Robinson Museum (right) next to Daisy’s In The Park cafe (left)

Why Pinner? Because Heath Robinson moved here with his young family in 1908, doing much of his best work at a house in nearby Moss Lane, where he is now commemorated by a blue plaque.

Museum layout

The Heath Robinson museum in fact consists of just one main display room but it is an education in itself to witness just how much information can be conveyed in one room. The most interesting feature is the way his life and career is told on a continuous strip extending right round the room at waist height, and undulating and curving a bit like a solidified scroll. This tells HR’s full life story with explanations of key aspects of his career. Some pictures are embedded in the scroll, while above, at head height, is a series of black and white prints, and then over our heads hang a sequence of really large full-colour, poster-size illustrations.

The Heath Robinson Museum showing the waist-level information shelf, mid-height prints, and high-up posters, plus the model contraptions in the middle

The Heath Robinson Museum showing the waist-level information shelf running round the wall, the mid-height prints, and the high-up colour posters, plus the model contraptions in the middle

There’s an audio guide or commentary. Just tap it against the symbol next to a relevant illustration and it gives a bit of commentary and opinion about it.

And in the centre of the room are some entertaining models of some Heath Robinson contraptions. So although it’s only one room it takes a good 30 to 40 minutes to go round reading everything and looking at everything (and laughing out loud).

Potted biography

William Heath Robinson was born in Finsbury Park in 1872 into a family of artists. His father was an illustrator for newspapers and magazines, and William and his brothers used to copy him as well as drawing things in the family garden and nearby park. Eventually all three brothers became illustrators.

William hankered to be a landscape artist and landscapes remained his first love, but a man needs to eat and, through contacts of his father and brothers, he quickly found work which rewarded his stunning draughtsmanship and eye for detail. From the turn of the century he provided lavish colour illustrations to editions of children’s classics such as Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Legends (1897), The Arabian Nights (1899), Tales from Shakespeare (1902), Gargantua and Pantagruel (1904), Twelfth Night (1908), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1914) and The Water-Babies (1915). Several of these titles are available in the Museum bookshop as luxurious hardback editions.

'So full of shapes is fancy' (Twelfth Night) by William Heath Robinson

‘So full of shapes is fancy’ – Twelfth Night (1908) by William Heath Robinson

The most amazing thing about this picture is that it’s set during the day. The topmost part of the facade opposite is in full daylight – so this isn’t a night-time scene, as the dim darkness suggests – it’s a beautifully poetic evocation of daytime shadow.

In 1909 Heath Robinson was commissioned to illustrate Kipling’s multi-part poem, A Song of the English, written to convey the far-flung nature of the British Empire and the heroism of the men, in particular the sailors, who toiled to preserve it. The pen and watercolour illustrations are quite dazzlingly brilliant.

It’s startling that a man capable of such powerfully visionary pictures could also write and illustrate a children’s book of his own, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902). This is the strange tale of a man who falls asleep minding his baby by a brook only for it to be stolen by the ‘bag-bird’, resulting in a series of adventures to remote picturesque locations like Arabia or the Arctic to try and find the missing babe. Uncle Lubin features in a number of images here, including large poster-size versions of Lubin flying in a typically fraying-string and hand-made balloon.

The Aeronaut from The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902) by William Heath Robinson

The Aeronaut from The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902) by William Heath Robinson

Contraptions and gadgets

In fact, Uncle Lubin is sometimes regarded as the start of HR’s career in the depiction of unlikely machines – the enormous range of illustrations and cartoon of complicated hand-made contraptions featuring ropes and pulleys, levers and handles, and incongruous household elements like umbrellas and kettles, absurdly and unnecessarily complicated devices erected to carry out incongruously simple or far-fetched activities. It is the mind-boggling array of such devices which gave the language the adjective ‘Heath Robinson’ which can be applied to any absurdly complex and jerry-rigged contraption.

'Stout members of the sixth column dislodge an enemy machine gun post on the dome of St Paul's' by William Heath Robinson

Stout members of the sixth column dislodge an enemy machine gun post on the dome of St Paul’s by William Heath Robinson

Heath Robinson realised that the contraptions are funnier, the more seriously they are taken. Therefore every element of every device is imagined down to the tiniest pulley and knotted string, and all of the army of technicians and engineers and soldiers and scientists are going about their business with the utmost seriousness. He said that the viewer has to believe in the subject as seriously as the characters themselves.

Deceiving the Invader by William Heath Robinson

Deceiving the invader as to the state of the tide by William Heath Robinson

Two World Wars

The market for top end, luxury, lavishly colour-illustrated books dried up with the advent of the Great War. Heath Robinson had been providing comic cartoons for a variety of publications and, when war broke out, began a stream of humorous cartoons satirising the enemy in three books – Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures (1915), Hunlikely! (1916) and The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917). All three volumes are collected into one book, available in the bookshop.

Twenty years later, the saintly Hun was back again and Heath Robinson produced another set of war cartoons, this time noticeably satirising official British war efforts. As the commentary points out, maybe the Nazis were just too unspeakable to laugh about.

The war was of course a period of rationing and austerity, with everyone being encouraged to ‘make do and mend’, not throw anything away, but patch and fix things. There’s an obvious link between the increasingly home-made, amateur DIY which the whole population was forced towards, and the relevance and popularity of Heath Robinson’s cracked contraptions.

A warm welcome for every parachutist by William Heath Robinson

A warm welcome for every parachutist by William Heath Robinson

Cartoons

After the Great War the early lavish illustrations gave way to a flood of humorous drawings for magazines and advertisements. In 1934 he published a collection of his favourites as Absurdities. For example:

You could go a bit heavy and wonder if this between-the-wars interest in absurdity echoes and anticipates the French existentialist emphasis on the absurdity and futility of human existence. The French had Jean-Paul Sartre and the Resistance; we had Heath Robinson and Dad’s Army; the Nazis had the Horst Wessel Song; we had Noel Coward and comic songs like Don’t Let’s Be Beastly To The Germans.

The intellectual summer holiday reminded me of my recent visit to the Wolfgang Tillsman exhibition at Tate Modern, where everyone had their heads stuck in the exhibition pamphlet. Works like Testing teeth typify his deployment of massed ranks of managers and technicians, scientists and supervisors, to give the joke machinery added solemnity and pomposity. They remind me a lot of the government departments where I’ve worked.

Designs for living

The 1930s saw the first big wave of self-improvement books and guides and manuals. Only recently at the British Museum exhibition of landscape watercolours, I was reminded of the Shell guides, written by poets and writers of the day and illustrated by leading artists, which were designed to get the reading public motoring off into the country to explore the counties of England, or pulling on their hiking boots and setting off a-rambling.

It was in this climate that Heath Robinson was paired up with the humourist K.R.G. Browne to illustrate a brilliant series of ‘how to’ books – How to live in a flat (1936), How to be a perfect husband (1937), How to make a garden grow (1938), poking fun at new trends and fashions for ‘modern living’.

Romantic possibilities in modern flats by William Heath Robinson

Romantic possibilities in modern flats (1936) by William Heath Robinson

In 1933 Heath Robinson did his marvellous cartoon illustrations for the first of the Professor Branestawm books written by Norman Hunter – The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm – which I read and loved as a boy.

Adverts and commercial work

It is also striking to learn that Heath Robinson provided illustrations, straight or comic, for some 100 commercial products, several of which are included here, notably his cartoon-style ads for Hovis bread and some of the humorous illustrations he did for the leather-making firm of Connolly Brothers.

Heath Robinson’s watercolours

But the aspect of his work which I wasn’t expecting and which crept slowly up on me as I walked round, was the strength and power of his more serious work – the early Shakespeare and literary illustrations, for sure, but also the really stunning watercolours and landscapes which he produced throughout his life.

Eastern Market Scene by William Heath Robinson

Eastern Market Scene, watercolour by William Heath Robinson

The commentary explains that, quite separately from his commercial work, Heath Robinson continued to paint landscapes in his spare time – sometimes pure pastoral, sometimes with whimsical fairies and goblins, sometimes with more spiritual-looking Greek or idealised human figures ghosting through them.

Girl on a riverbank by William Heath Robinson

Girl on a riverbank, watercolour by William Heath Robinson

The cartoons are often very, very funny, all the funnier the more carefully you follow through their ludicrously intricate machinery. But some of these watercolours and spiritualised landscapes are masterpieces in a completely different mood – brilliantly evocative and powerful, strange and haunting.

The commentary points out that Heath Robinson made careful use of deliberately limited tone and palette – the washes come from the same colour base i.e. almost all greens in the watercolour above, variations on blue in the Twelfth Night illustration at the top of this post, more greens in the landscape below. An almost Japanese sense of the unity and harmoniousness of the colours creates a wonderfully dreamlike impression.

Landscape with tall tree and haystack by William Heath Robinson

Landscape with tall tree and haystack, watercolour by William Heath Robinson

As you soak up Heath Robinson’s command of watercolour and the tonal unity of these works, it makes you appreciate all the more how he combined this colour control with the immaculate draughtsmanship so obvious in the cartoons to produce a synthesis – wonderful tonal harmony controlled by breath-taking design – in the best of his fairy, Shakespeare and literary illustrations. And makes you go back to marvel at them all over again.

And, as the exhibition shows, this incredibly diverse artist could also use the same combination in another flavour or style or ‘voice’ altogether – away from the fantastical fairy world, in a style which depicts the modern world with no comic intent but with the same breath-taking linesmanship and colour harmony to create a wonderful sense of warmth and friendliness.

Heath Robinson’s art is at home in the world and makes the viewer, also, feel profoundly, safely at home.

What a really great artist, a brilliant illustrator, a hilarious cartoonist, and a wonderfully evocative watercolourist. This is an absolute treat of a museum!

Credit

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


Related links

%d bloggers like this: