I was delighted to be asked to review an exhibition showcasing a collection of precise ink drawings and delicate watercolours by William Heath Robinson (1872 – 1944) which is currently on at St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire until Saturday 20th April, 2013. The Heath Robinson exhibition is supported by Rathbones investment management services. This exhibition, from the William Heath Robinson Trust, showcases illustrations he produced for works by William Shakespeare, Hans Christian Anderson and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) as well as for his own books. There will also, of course, be a number of his much-loved designs for eccentric contraptions and humorous drawings.
Heath Robinson has become a byword for the eccentric and rickety inventions which he created. In the 1930s, he was known as the ‘Gadget King’, a remarkable title given that in real life Heath was not very practically minded. He had only ever been abroad once, towards the end of the First World War, when he illustrated scenes from the western front. At the beginning of his career he was ranked with Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) and Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) as one of Britain’s foremost illustrators.
Heath counted among his friends, authors H.G. Wells (1866-1946) and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), Heath illustrated Kipling’s A Song of The English (1909, published by Hodder & Stoughton), which celebrated Edwardian pride in the Empire. Heath visited Kipling in Sussex to discuss the book. Illustrations from the publication feature in the exhibition.
Heath was born on 31st May 1872 at 25 Ennis Road, Stroud Green, London. His father Thomas Robinson (1838-1902) chief illustrator of Penny Illustrated Paper and his mother, Eliza Heath (1849-1921), an innkeeper’s daughter. The Robinsons had seven children, Heath was their third child. Heath’s elder brothers Thomas (1869-1953) and Charles (1870-1937) also became well-known book illustrators.
Heath attended Miss Mole’s dame-school, Holloway College from 1880 to 1884 and Islington proprietary school from 1884 to 1887. He did not thrive in education, a fact which his father recognised removing him, aged fifteen, from the proprietary school and sending him instead to Islington Art School, where he remained for five years. He won a studentship to the Royal Academy Schools, graduating in January 1897, aged twenty-five. Whilst at the RA, Heath had become an accomplished landscape painter but subsequently struggled to make a living selling his artworks. Heath’s passion for painting remained with him for the rest of his life, in his spare time he continued to produce landscapes, experimenting with effects of light and colour, as well as figure studies in watercolour.
In order to further his artistic career he decided to join his brothers who were already working as illustrators. Although being an illustrator was a respectable profession, it could be notoriously difficult to make a living from. However, Heath had real talent for humorous art which made him much in demand, especially in the world of advertising. He also took the occasional commission for book and magazine illustrations (The Sketch, The Bystander and The Tatler).
Some of Heath’s earliest book illustrations were published in 1897 and by 1900 he had illustrated editions of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, Fairy Tales From Hans Christian Anderson (1899, published by J. M. Dent) and The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (1900, these illustrations were influenced by the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898)). Copies of the Poe publication are extremely rare, a limited edition of only seventy-five copies were produced, printed on Japanese vellum. He illustrated Anderson’s Fairy Tales with his brothers, Thomas and Charles.
Heath’s fortunes improved when he illustrated his own fantasy for children The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902, published by Grant Richards). He wrote about this publication in his biography, My Line of Life (1938, published by Blackie & Son): ‘The story is episodic in form, telling the tale of Uncle Lubin, a little old man in a tall hat and long coat, as he attempts to retrieve his nephew, Baby Peter, from the clutches of the wicked bag-bird.’
This book was particularly important, although not a best seller, it did earn Heath enough money to enable him to marry Josephine Constance Latey (1878-1974), the daughter of newspaper editor John Latey, on 30th April, 1903, they set-up home in Holloway Road. As luck would have it, a Canadian by name of Chase Ed. Potter had read Lubin and commissioned Heath to illustrate some advertisements he was writing for Lamson Paragon Supply Company. Heath was paid, in cash, for each drawing.
In 1903, Heath embarked upon his most ambitious project to-date, The Works of Mr Francis Rabelais, commissioned by Grant Richards. The book contained two hundred and fifty-four illustrations, a hundred of which were full-page illustrations, the rest smaller ones. The book was published in 1904 in two large quarto volumes to critical acclaim. Unfortunately, Grant Richards went bankrupt in November 1904 leaving Heath short of the monies that he had hoped to earn.
Heath moved to Pinner, Middlesex, in 1908 and lived there with his family until 1918, residing at Moy Lodge from 1910. Following his move to Pinner and until 1914, Heath continued to produce book illustrations as well as cartoons for The Sketch and The Strand Magazine, amongst other periodicals. He moved to Cranleigh in Surrey in 1918 remaining there until 1929, when he relocated to Highgate, London. In Highgate, he first lived in Shepherd’s Hill and later 25 Southwood Avenue, close to where he had spent a majority of his childhood.
One of Heath’s finest achievements as an illustrator were forty-one pen and ink drawings for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1914, published by Constable & Co). A contemporary review, in The Times Literary Supplement, described the publication as: ‘The most complete and beautiful specimen before us of an illustrated book as a single work of art…’. A copy of the publication is on display in the exhibition. There is an inscription in the front of this book, which is on display in the exhibition, from Heath to his mother: ‘To my good mother with very best wishes from her affectionate son, will.’
In 1915, Heath produced illustrations for The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) (published by Constable & Co). The edition was originally planned as a lavish gift book but due to the economic climate at the end of World War One, it was published as a modest octavo volume. The illustrations are some of Heath’s finest and show a clear influence of Japanese prints. The Japanese style influenced an entire generation of illustrators.
At the end of World War One, despite the market for lavishly illustrated gift books having all but disappeared, Heath’s talents were still in demand. He obtained a number of commissions for illustrations to appear in advertisements and magazines. Between 1903 and 1942, he produced about a hundred advertising drawings for a wide range of products including Mackintosh Toffees, biscuits, asbestos cement roofs, whiskey and paper. He had a particular talent for parodying the processes by which the various products were made as well as contrasting some of the more desirable qualities of these products. The drawings often took the form of ‘before and after’, i.e. unhappy scenes where the product was absent and happy scenes where the product’s inclusion made everything appear better. A campaign of particular note was for Hovis bread.
Between 1920 and 1936, Heath produced over two hundred drawings for Connolly Bros. (Curriers) Ltd, a majority of which are still in the company’s possession. These collection of drawings were published by the firm as Heath Robinson on Leather, to commemorate the company’s 50th anniversary, in 1928, and were reissued to mark the company’s centenary in 1978. The exhibition includes examples of Heath’s illustrations for both Hovis and the Connolly Bros. (Curriers) Ltd. A particularly delightful illustration for the latter is ‘William the Conqueror appreciates the comfort of leather when crossing the Channel’, pen and ink, 1933.
In January 1921, Heath was commissioned by Jonathan Cape to produce colour illustrations for a complete works of Shakespeare. He completed the drawings in June 1922. Unfortunately, only a handful of these colour illustrations still exist, several rare examples of which are in the exhibition. Jonathan Cape could not find an American partner to share the cost of publication and because of the continuing decline in the market for illustrated books, the edition was never published.
In 1927, Heath produced sixteen designs in full colour, based on popular nursery rhymes, which featured on a range of nursery china for Soane & Smith, Knightsbridge. The china was produced by W. R. Midwinter of Burslem, Staffordshire. Examples from this range can been seen in the exhibition. The attention to detail in the frieze of children’s faces is exquisite. This frieze appeared on the inside rim of cups, bowls and around the outside edge of plates and porringers.
Other characters featured included: goblins; Jack Spratt and his wife; Tom, Tom the Piper’s son and the old woman who lived in a shoe. The range was extensive and ran to cereal bowls, saucers, jam pots, sugar bowls, mugs, egg cups and even a tureen. The service was so popular that it was later sold through a variety of outlets, although the later designs were simplified with the frieze of children’s faces replaced by a simple band of dark blue or pale green.
One of my favourite drawings in the exhibition is a pen, ink and watercolour sketch produced by Heath in 1930 for the luxury trans-Atlantic liner, RMS Empress of Britain (1931) operated by Canadian Pacific Steamship Company which was built in Scotland. The sketch is divided into two parts, the top features a suggested design for ‘The ‘Knickerbocker’ Cocktail Bar’ and the bottom half of the sketch is a design for ‘The Children’s Room’. A closer look at the drawing for the Cocktail Bar reveals some of Heath’s humorous touches. This illustration draws its inspiration from experiences of drinking a cocktail, which according to Heath make you affectionate, give you courage, nerve and produce human kindness. There is also a Cocktail Bird, A Pleasant Surprise and Cocktail shaking in the East.
The Empress of Britain operated from 1931 until 1939 as a steam passenger liner designed to carry 1,195 passengers (465 first class, 260 second class and 470 third class). During the summer months it sailed along the England-Canada route. In 1939, it was requisitioned for war work and became a troop carrier. It was torpedoed on 28th October, 1940 by a German U-boat (U-32) on the northwest of Bloody Foreland, County Donegal, Ireland. Mystery still surrounds the cargo it was supposed to be carrying at the time. It was thought to have been a shipment of gold, bound for North America, a fact that has never been proved.
Another intriguing pen and ink drawing, which I last saw whilst an art history undergraduate, is from How To Live In A Flat (1936), by W. H. Robinson and K.R.G. Browne, published by Hutchison & Co. ‘The One-Piece Chromium Steel Dining Suite’ makes a striking social statement about the popularity of flat-dwelling in the interwar years and contains humorous touches by Heath. In the following extract from the publication, explanation is given for another of Heath’s illustrations: ‘A vote of thanks, therefore, is due to Mr Heath Robinson for demonstrating that a certain amount of quiet fun can be extracted even from the last word in geometrical carpetry. Carpet draughts, they tell me, is just the thing for the long winter evenings, and as it can be played sitting-down – will keep the old folks happy and amused while the young people are out at the movies.’ (Robinson & Browne, 1936, p.42).
In 1944, Heath underwent exploratory surgery, following which he returned home to Southwood Avenue, Highgate, where he died of a stroke on 13th September, later on in the same year. He is buried at St. Marylebone cemetery, East Finchley. This quality exhibition is a delight for both children and adults, it is guaranteed to make you smile and raise a chuckle.
Tickets to the Heath Robinson exhibition and St. Barbe Museum, which is open between 10am and 4pm, Monday to Saturday, cost £4 for adults, £3 for senior citizens and students, £2 for children aged five to 15, and £10 for a family of two adults and up to four children; under fives are admitted free of charge. For more details visit www.stbarbe-museum.org.uk or telephone 01590 676969.
- Thursday 11th April, 2013, 10.30am-3.30pm there is a Heath Robinson themed Family Explorer Day at St. Barbe Museum. The Museum’s Explorer Days are engaging and fun hands-on creative activities for children and their family, including the opportunity to handle museum objects. Price is included in admission. Day ticket: Adult £4, Concession £3, Child £2, Family £10. For further information, CLICK HERE.
Arts & Crafts Exhibition – 9th March until 13th April, 2013
The Old School Gallery – St. Barbe Museum
An added bonus when you visit the Heath Robinson exhibition, is the Arts and Crafts Exhibition currently on at The Old School Gallery, located in the same building as the Museum. This is the Museum’s first selling exhibition, showcasing arts and crafts by regional artists: Carol-Anne Savage (contemporary jewellery); Victoria Garland Prints (Prints); Mrs Ollie Chappell (Raku Ceramics); Sue Baker (papier mâché fish); Paul Reeves (beautifully turned wooden objects made from wood found in and around the New Forest or from dead or fallen trees) and Michael Turner (stainless steel sculpture). The range of items for sale is excellent and of an exceptionally high standard.
Sue Baker’s papier mâché fish looked striking hung on the white-washed walls of The Old School Gallery. Her inspiration for the fish comes from when she lived in Cornwall: ‘I’ve always enjoyed messing about with paints and drawing, and enjoy the point where craft and art overlap. I fell into the papier mâché interest over twenty years ago. Having tried a few experiments following ideas in a book. I decided I preferred to do my own thing. The fish theme developed from there. Living in Cornwall, where I was born (I moved to Dorset ten years ago), the fish were an obvious choice I suppose. I started making imaginative fish; but the demand for realistic fish grew, so I seem to make them exclusively now.’
A stainless steel lion by Lymington based sculptor Michael Turner, which is positioned in the Museum’s entrance, proved to be a big hit with both adults and children on the Saturday I visited. If you have travelled through Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 in recent years, you may well have seen Michael’s lion on display there. The lion is for sale, price on application.
Michael describes his work thus: ‘I have been a sculptor for over fifteen years now. I enjoy using recycled stainless steel. In our throw away society, it’s great for me to be able to take discarded material and turn it into something beautiful, and every project takes on a new challenge. My inspiration mainly comes from nature in all its forms. I am especially fascinated by insects which I never tire of reproducing, experimenting constantly with different types of finishes on the basic stainless steel. I use polishing, paint and heat effects to produce a unique piece every time. My work is exhibited in selected galleries and recently featured in Harvey Nichols’ London and Edinburgh stores, as well as the Royal West of England Academy.’
- The Arts & Crafts Exhibition continues at St. Barbe Museum, until 13th April, 2013.