WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON (1872-1944)

Heath Robinson is a household name, and a byword for a design or construction that is ‘ingeniously or ridiculously over-complicated’ (as defined by The New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1998, page 848). read more...

Heath Robinson is a household name, and a byword for a design or construction that is ‘ingeniously or ridiculously over-complicated’ (as defined by The New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1998, page 848). Yet, he was also a highly distinctive and versatile illustrator, whose work could touch at one extreme the romantic watercolours of a Dulac or Rackham, at another the sinister grotesqueries of a Peake, and at yet another the eccentricities of an Emett.

William Heath Robinson was born on 31 May 1872 in Islington, North London, the third son of Thomas Robinson, chief staff artist of the Penny Illustrated Paper. In the hope of becoming a landscape painter, he studied at Islington School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools, but soon followed his brothers, Charles and Tom, into the more secure profession of illustration. He contributed to periodicals from 1896 and, in the following year, began to illustrate books. He established his position in 1902, marking his individuality with illustrations to his own book, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin, and ensuring his financial stability by making his first drawings for advertising. In this first phase, he worked almost exclusively in black and white, fully demonstrating his mastery of monochrome in The Works of Francis Rabelais. This appeared in 1904, just as Grant Richards, his main patron and the book’s publisher, became bankrupt. However, he was able to work with other publishers, developing his use of colour in order to produce true gift books; these began with Twelfth Night (Hodder, 1908), and included his own story, Bill the Minder (Constable, 1912), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Constable, 1914).

Though Robinson competed with others in the field of the gift book, he remained the unparalleled practitioner of the comic image. He produced an increasing number of humorous drawings for magazines and, from the First World War, was acknowledged the most original illustrator of his time. To the general public, as represented by the popular press, he was known as the ‘Gadget King’, that is as the inventor of perversely logical contraptions that gently mocked the products of the industrial age and so endeared society to its own rapid rate of change. He exploited this persona, by appearing on radio and television, designing a house for the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition (1934), and parodying the self-help manual in a series of books which began with How to Live in a Flat (written with K R G Browne, 1936). His major set of literary illustrations in this later period further blurred the distinction between fiction and reality: Norman Hunter’s The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (1933) concerned an amiable, eccentric inventor. The events of the Second World War, as experienced on both sides of the English Channel, enabled him to sustain his powers of invention even into his final work. He died in Highgate, North London, on 13 September 1944.

His work is represented in the collections of the British Museum, The Cartoon Museum, the V&A and The West House and Heath Robinson Museum Trust.

Further reading:
Geoffrey Beare, The Art of William Heath Robinson, London: Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2003; Geoffrey Beare, The Brothers Robinson, London: Chris Beetles Ltd, 1992 Geoffrey Beare, Heath Robinson Advertising, London: Bellew, 1992; Geoffrey Beare, The Illustrations of W Heath Robinson, London: Werner Shaw, 1983 Geoffrey Beare, William Heath Robinson 1872-1944, London: Chris Beetles Ltd, 2011; Langston Day, The Life and Art of W Heath Robinson, London: Herbert Joseph, 1947; James Hamilton, William Heath Robinson, London: Pavilion Books, 1992; Simon Heneage, ‘Robinson, William Heath (1872-1944)’, in H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 47, pages 428-431; John Lewis, Heath Robinson. Artist and Comic Genius, London: Constable, 1973

TrainsGolfHumour & SatireCartoons
WarFairy & FantasyDomestic LifeIllustrations
AN ERROR OF JUDGEMENT IN THE GOODS YARD by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

AN ERROR OF JUDGEMENT IN THE GOODS YARD

EARLY METHODS OF ENGINE CLEANING by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

EARLY METHODS OF ENGINE CLEANING

POPULARITY OF THE HIKERS' MYSTERY EXPRESS LEADS TO THE SAME IDEA ON THE ROAD by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

POPULARITY OF THE HIKERS' MYSTERY EXPRESS LEADS TO THE SAME IDEA ON THE ROAD

VARIED DUTIES OF RAILWAY POLICE by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

VARIED DUTIES OF RAILWAY POLICE

A SIMPLE DEVICE FOR PREVENTING RAILWAY POLICEMEN FROM BEING RUN DOWN WHEN WALKING ON THE LINE by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

A SIMPLE DEVICE FOR PREVENTING RAILWAY POLICEMEN FROM BEING RUN DOWN WHEN WALKING ON THE LINE

A PICTURESQUE CEREMONY  
THE MAYOR IN STATE LETTING THROUGH THE FIRST TRAIN IN A NEW RAILWAY STATION by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

A PICTURESQUE CEREMONY THE MAYOR IN STATE LETTING THROUGH THE FIRST TRAIN IN A NEW RAILWAY STATION

THE FIRST 'LADIES ONLY' COMPARTMENT by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

THE FIRST 'LADIES ONLY' COMPARTMENT

BOLD MOVE IN THE CAMPAIGN TO DO AWAY WITH RAILWAY PORTERS by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

BOLD MOVE IN THE CAMPAIGN TO DO AWAY WITH RAILWAY PORTERS

THE FIRST MAGNETIC SIGNAL by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

THE FIRST MAGNETIC SIGNAL

THE KIND OF THING WE WERE SOMETIMES REDUCED TO BEFORE THE INTRODUCTION OF FOOT WARMERS by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

THE KIND OF THING WE WERE SOMETIMES REDUCED TO BEFORE THE INTRODUCTION OF FOOT WARMERS

NUT CRACKING ON THE GWR by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

NUT CRACKING ON THE GWR

THE ADJUSTABLE CHIMNEY TO FIT ANY SIZE TUNNEL by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

THE ADJUSTABLE CHIMNEY TO FIT ANY SIZE TUNNEL

HOW THEY NEGOTIATED THE FLOODED DISTRICTS IN THE SHORT CUT TO THE WEST by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

HOW THEY NEGOTIATED THE FLOODED DISTRICTS IN THE SHORT CUT TO THE WEST

THE SERVANT IN THE HOUSE by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

THE SERVANT IN THE HOUSE

A BRAINY OLD HUN SETTLING THE DANUBE DIFFICULTY BY STOPPING THE RIVER AT ITS SOURCE by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

A BRAINY OLD HUN SETTLING THE DANUBE DIFFICULTY BY STOPPING THE RIVER AT ITS SOURCE

CABINET COUNCILLORS WERE WALKING ABOUT BAREFOOTED by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

CABINET COUNCILLORS WERE WALKING ABOUT BAREFOOTED

HARD TO BEAT: THE RECORD by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

HARD TO BEAT: THE RECORD

THE INCURABLE GOLFER DOES A SHORT HOLE IN ONE by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

THE INCURABLE GOLFER DOES A SHORT HOLE IN ONE

THE KINDLY CADDY-BIRD OF ST ANDREWS PURSUING ITS DAILY ROUND by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

THE KINDLY CADDY-BIRD OF ST ANDREWS PURSUING ITS DAILY ROUND

ALL IS NOT GOLD THAT GLITTERS AMERICAN GOLFERS, WHO THINK THEY SEE A BOTTLE OF WHISKEY, OVERCOME WITH HONOUR AND AVERSION by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

ALL IS NOT GOLD THAT GLITTERS AMERICAN GOLFERS, WHO THINK THEY SEE A BOTTLE OF WHISKEY, OVERCOME WITH HONOUR AND AVERSION