THE ILLUSTRATORS 2018 : ROBINSON, WILLIAM HEATH (1872-1944)

William Heath Robinson

William Heath Robinson (1872-1944)


Heath Robinson is a household name, and a byword for a design or construction that is ‘ingeniously or ridiculously read more...
William Heath Robinson
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). 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)’, 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
THE SWINEHERD SCOLDED AND THE RAIN POURED DOWN by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

THE SWINEHERD SCOLDED AND THE RAIN POURED DOWN

AND TURNED INTO A WATERDOG by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

AND TURNED INTO A WATERDOG

THE NEW MOVEABLE WALLS FOR FLATS – ENABLING NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOURS TO HOLD LARGER PARTIES BY MUTUAL ARRANGEMENT ON DIFFERENT DATES by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

THE NEW MOVEABLE WALLS FOR FLATS – ENABLING NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOURS TO HOLD LARGER PARTIES BY MUTUAL ARRANGEMENT ON DIFFERENT DATES

GROUSE by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

GROUSE

HIGHLAND TRAGEDY by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

HIGHLAND TRAGEDY

ARRIVED TOO LATE FOR THE TRAIN by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

ARRIVED TOO LATE FOR THE TRAIN

AN UNINTENDED KINDNESS by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

AN UNINTENDED KINDNESS

MISS FRANCIS WENT DOWNSTAIRS TO RUN THE GAUNTLET OF THE SQUALID LITTLE SLUM ALLEY by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

MISS FRANCIS WENT DOWNSTAIRS TO RUN THE GAUNTLET OF THE SQUALID LITTLE SLUM ALLEY

THE HORSE GROANED by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

THE HORSE GROANED

SHE GAVE HIM AND ICE, AND FRUIT SALAD, AND CREAM by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

SHE GAVE HIM AND ICE, AND FRUIT SALAD, AND CREAM

PUGH WAS AFRAID HE WAS DEAD by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

PUGH WAS AFRAID HE WAS DEAD

LOOKED AT EACH FOR ALMOST A MINUTE by WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON

LOOKED AT EACH FOR ALMOST A MINUTE