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date: 04 October 2022

Robinson, William Heathfree

(1872–1944)

Robinson, William Heathfree

(1872–1944)
  • Simon Heneage

William Heath Robinson (1872–1944)

by Guy Worsdell, 1943

© Guy Worsdell; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Robinson, William Heath (1872–1944), cartoonist and illustrator, was born on 31 May 1872 at 25 Ennis Road, Stroud Green, London, the third of the seven children of Thomas Robinson (1838–1902), illustrator, and his wife, Eliza (1849–1921), daughter of William Heath, innkeeper, and his wife, Mary.

Background and early life

The Robinsons were a family of artists and craftsmen. William's paternal grandfather, Thomas Robinson (1806–1885), worked as a bookbinder in Newcastle upon Tyne before becoming a wood-engraver in London, his work appearing in such periodicals as Good Words and London Society. His father graduated from watchmaking to wood-engraving to illustration, becoming chief illustrator of the Penny Illustrated Paper. His elder brothers Thomas (1869–1953) and Charles (1870–1937) became well-known book illustrators, particularly the latter, who had a strong influence on his own style.

In his autobiography My Line of Life (1938), Heath Robinson (as he was invariably known) remembered his early years at home with affection. Since illustration was a respectable but not a highly paid profession, the family lived at a succession of modest but comfortable houses in the Islington and Hornsey area of north London. There was no money for luxuries:

we had to provide our own amusements and make many of the things we played with … I think I may attribute the seeds of inspiration for the humorous drawings I have since attempted to those early efforts to make things out of homely materials originally intended for some wholly different purpose. In such circumstances, drawing became a necessity and a normal means of expression. My father consistently encouraged it.

Heath Robinson, 25

If life at home in a large, busy, close-knit family was happy, life at school was less so. Heath Robinson attended Miss Mole's dame-school, Holloway College from 1880 to 1884 ('the education was of a meagre character'; Heath Robinson, 41), and Islington proprietary school from 1884 to 1887 ('few happy memories remain to me of this school'; ibid., 47). Perhaps his failure to learn stemmed from his extreme shyness and from the fact that 'I did not want to be anything else than an artist' (ibid., 71). His father removed him at fifteen to Islington Art School, where for five years he drew from the antique. He then won a coveted studentship to the Royal Academy Schools where, over a further five-year period, he drew from the antique; consequently his attendance was 'never very regular' (ibid., 78). During his last year he sold some illustrations to the magazines Sunday and Little Folks.

Early career: painting and book illustration

By the time he left the Royal Academy Schools in January 1897 Heath Robinson saw landscape painting as his métier. However, when the pictures he painted that summer on Hampstead Heath failed to sell, he decided, aged twenty-five and penniless, that he must pursue the family craft of illustration. For the rest of his life he painted landscapes and figure studies in watercolour for relaxation, largely from imagination: 'to these financially unrewarded labours I owe more than I can say' (Heath Robinson, 171).

Heath Robinson's earliest book illustrations, for editions of the classics, were published in 1897. By 1899, in editions of The Arabian Nights' Entertainments and Fairy Tales from Hans Christian Andersen (shared with his brothers Tom and Charles), he was beginning to attract favourable attention, further enhanced in 1900 by his illustrations for The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, much influenced by Beardsley. But it was the publication by Grant Richards of Heath Robinson's own fantasy for children, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), that revealed a truly original imagination and sense of humour. H. G. Wells, in his novel Marriage (1912), called it 'a rare good thing' (p. 269).

In 1899 Heath Robinson had become engaged to Josephine Constance Latey (1878–1974), daughter of John Latey (d. 1903), his father's close friend and colleague on the Penny Illustrated Paper. On the strength of his earnings from Uncle Lubin, the couple married on 30 April 1903, and set up home in Holloway Road. Heath Robinson's earnings were swelled by a series of humorous advertisements drawn for Lamson Paragon, a Canadian company, but his high hopes rested in a sumptuous edition in two large quarto volumes, The Works of Mr Francis Rabelais, commissioned by Grant Richards. This was published in 1904 and Heath Robinson's 254 illustrations, 100 being full-page, represented a notable achievement. He chose a grotesque style which emphasized the earthiness of the epic while overlooking the bawdy. Although the book advanced his reputation, it did little to help his bank balance as Grant Richards went bankrupt in November 1904.

With a daughter now as well as a wife to support, Heath Robinson needed new outlets for his work. He approached the large-format ‘society’ magazines which, printing illustrations full-page, offered him most scope as an artist. In 1905 The Tatler and The Bystander published a few of his comic-sentimental allegories, but these had a limited appeal. Starting in 1906, he found his true direction in The Sketch, whose editor, Bruce Ingram, gave him encouragement and wise advice. His first series, The Gentle Art of Catching Things ('Whelks on the Shores of the Caspian Sea', for example), included most of the ingredients on which his humour was based—ingenuity, pretence, and disguise—and in the next, British Sports and Pastimes, a prototype ‘contraption’ appeared.

Success and recognition

These series, and Great British Industries which followed in 1908, had an immediate impact. In a profile published in the Strand Magazine for July 1908 the anonymous author wrote that, 'not least of the widespread interest Mr Robinson has excited is the seeming abruptness of his public appearance in the role of humorist'. He had discovered the niche which made him a synonym in the English dictionary for absurdly ingenious devices, but he needed more time to discover the appropriate style. Under the influence of S. H. Sime, he often favoured a comic-grotesque style which could be repellent, especially in the treatment of animals. Gradually the macabre subjects and settings were eliminated, as were the standard joke properties—receding chins, bulbous noses, staring eyes—all in the interest of credibility. By 1914 the revolution was almost complete.

The year 1908 also saw the birth of Heath Robinson's son Oliver (three more sons followed); a move from north London to Hatch End, Pinner, then in rural Middlesex; the publication of his illustrations to Twelfth Night, atmospheric watercolours that were exhibited at the Brook Street Gallery; and the appointment of A. E. Johnson as his agent. Johnson, who became his close friend and trusted adviser, wrote the first study of his work, W. Heath Robinson (1913).

From 1908 to 1914 Heath Robinson divided his time between book illustration and cartoons for The Sketch, the Strand Magazine, and other periodicals. His best books were his own fantasy Bill the Minder (1912) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1914), in which, most notably in line drawings, he surpassed himself. His Sketch cartoons included in 1910 a series called Am Tag, predicting the consequences of a German invasion. When war came in 1914 he was too old to enlist and uncertain how to react. A cartoonist in wartime was expected to vilify the enemy or bolster the morale of his own side. Heath Robinson decided to carry on being absurd, and because the men on active service loved it—he had an immense correspondence with them—the authorities could not disapprove. The Germans (wearing the uniforms of the Franco-Prussian War) invented ‘frightful’ means of teasing, discomfiting or embarrassing our troops who (looking scarcely less ridiculous) confounded them. Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures, selected from The Sketch and the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, was published in 1915, and the 'popular edition' published the following year went into six impressions. The Saintly Hun: a Book of German Virtues, published in 1917, was a masterpiece of deadpan irony. The line drawings had an unaccustomed bite, yet were mild compared with the excoriations of artists like Raemakers, Dyson, and E. J. Sullivan. A nearer comparison could be made with the work of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, who strove for as much reality as he could get past the censor. Heath Robinson dealt in fantasy, yet the humour of both men, in the context of the times, was conspicuously good-natured.

Heath Robinson was obeying his instincts. As a man he was kind, shy, quiet, diffident, prudish, unambitious for money, and unadventurous—he only once went abroad, in 1918, when a syndicate of Americans paid him to record the exploits of their forces on the western front. As an artist he prided himself on freedom from class-consciousness and racial prejudice. Unlike contemporary cartoonists in Punch (which published only one of his original drawings, in 1923, although it reprinted a few illustrations later), he made no jokes about Irishmen and Jews, nor about illiterate servants and drunken tramps. In appearance he was 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighed about 10 stone, had hazel eyes, a bushy moustache, a pale complexion, and generally wore a serious if not earnest expression. He liked reading—mostly classic English novels—pottering in his garden, going for country walks, and the company of his cats. He also enjoyed occasional visits to his two London clubs, the London Sketch Club (elected 1910) and the Savage (elected 1924). His interest in sport and machinery was restricted to their comic potential; the artist who depicted the Humours of Golf (1923) never swung a club and the ‘gadget king’ was totally impractical. In The Art of the Illustrator (1916) by Percy V. Bradshaw, Heath Robinson wrote: 'I really have a secret satisfaction in being considered rather mad … I am playing the part of an Artist who strains, with all his powers, to suggest the absolute conviction, logic and solid quality of the things he portrays' (p. 15). Heath Robinson's draughtsmanship in humorous work, as opposed to his ‘serious’ book illustration, was laboured to show labour: 'my technique', he explained in The Art of the Illustrator, 'must be naive and have all the appearance of absolute conscientiousness … a hard, obviously painstaking, uncompromising outline with an evident anxiety to leave nothing out' (p. 15).

During the war Heath Robinson had illustrated The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley (1915), Peacock Pie by Walter de la Mare (1916), and fairy stories in the Strand Magazine. Afterwards only Old Time Stories by Charles Perrault (1921) evoked his skills as an artist. Instead he concentrated on cartoons and on humorous advertisements, nearly always featuring machines or devices, for a wide variety of clients, including the Great Western Railway, for whom he produced Railway Ribaldry (1935), his finest effort. More than 400 of his better cartoons appeared in The Bystander between 1919 and 1928, and although most of them were examples of ingenuity, only a quarter contained ‘contraptions’. These contraptions, designed (for example) to split peas or test artificial teeth, which looked as if they ought to work, were only marginally funny in themselves. The joke lay in the solemn-faced men who operated the machines and manifestly thought their efforts worthwhile. Other favourite subjects were sport of all kinds, seaside holidays, travel, mainly in alpine districts, crime, mainly smuggling and burglary, and Scotsmen torturing themselves by parsimony and others by the bagpipes. Very occasionally, and always facetiously, Heath Robinson noticed current affairs. As he got older he often repeated himself in cheap magazines like The Humorist, and his draughtsmanship suffered accordingly.

Heath Robinson also supplied inter-war magazines with illustrations to articles and short stories, his work appearing in the Strand Magazine, Good Housekeeping, the Passing Show and, most notably, Nash's Pall Mall Magazine, for which he also designed full-colour covers so striking as to suggest that he could have made an excellent poster artist. Delightful too are the pictures of ‘little folk’ painted for special numbers of The Graphic in the early 1920s, and most impressive of all are the full-colour depictions of convivial occasions published in Holly Leaves in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Heath Robinson made the first of three radio broadcasts in 1923. In 1924 there was an exhibition of his work at the Fine Art Society in Bond Street, London, and in May of the following year his art was discussed, sympathetically, by A. L. Baldry in Studio magazine. He decorated two rooms on the liner Empress of Britain in 1930 and in 1934 he designed a house, The Gadgets, for the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. In the same year Absurdities, a collection of his humorous drawings, was published. In 1936 came How to Live in a Flat, the first of four popular How to … books concocted with the journalist K. R. G. Browne. By 1938, when his autobiography was published, Heath Robinson was one of the best-known men in the country. It was a pleasant, sentimental, and unrevealing book.

From Moy Lodge, Pinner, to which Heath Robinson had moved in 1910 and where a plaque now commemorates his residence, he moved in 1918 to Cranleigh in Surrey for peace and quiet. There he was often visited by members of his family and by artist friends like Bert Thomas, whose son, like his own four boys, was educated at the local independent school, Cranleigh. A neighbour, the author Frank Swinnerton, wrote in Reflections from a Village (1969) that Heath Robinson 'was a fellow villager but his modesty and ultra respectable demeanour were such that I doubt whether the majority of villagers ever identified him. He was a most sweet-tempered and attractive man' (Swinnerton, 51). By 1929 he was suffering from a heart condition which inhibited gardening and walking. Since his two eldest children were working in London he returned there himself: to Shepherd's Hill, Highgate. In 1932 his second son Alan, then a student at the Royal College of Art in London, converted to Roman Catholicism and entered a Benedictine monastery. Upset at first, partly because Alan was the only one of his children to show artistic ability, he later became reconciled, and visited the monastery on several occasions, presenting the monks with humorous interpretations of their building activities to help fund-raising. His wife became a Roman Catholic too and he, though never a churchgoer, read books on theology. Some of the private watercolours he painted about this time evince sacred preoccupations.

Although depressed by the outbreak of war in 1939, Heath Robinson rose to the occasion. The lack of inspiration that had marked some of his recent cartoons vanished; now he had new toys to play with: tanks, dive bombers, barrage balloons, parachutists, and air raid wardens. Above all he had camouflage: assuming the Germans invaded, they would never defeat us because they would never find us. They had the armaments but we had the brains, and guile would triumph. His drawings were published in The Sketch and a selection were reprinted in Heath Robinson at War (1942). In co-operation with Cecil Hunt, he also produced three books, How to Make the Best of Things (1940), How to Build a New World (1941), and How to Run a Communal Home (1943). He was working on a set of illustrations almost up to the end.

Death and reputation

In 1944 Heath Robinson underwent exploratory surgery in hospital for a prostate operation. Returning to his home, 25 Southwood Avenue, Highgate, he died of a stroke on 13 September; he was buried at St Marylebone cemetery, East Finchley. A memorial exhibition, covering all aspects of his work, was held at the Fine Art Society in February 1945. 'What may be unexpected in this exhibition', wrote the art critic of The Times, 'is the fineness of Heath Robinson's craftsmanship, the clean and firm fluency of his pen line and the quality of his watercolour washes.' Without that 'fineness of craftsmanship', which included compositional skills of a high order, he could not have succeeded as an illustrator nor, in the main territory he chose, as a humorist. He was by no means the discoverer of that territory; George Cruikshank among others had passed through it, but among contemporaries he was able to claim it for his own, because no other artist could so combine fertility of invention with artistic expertise.

Heath Robinson's reputation, kept alive in 1947 by the publication of Langston Day's The Life and Art of W. Heath Robinson, declined in the 1960s. His optimistic absurdity did not chime with the denigrating spirit of the age, and his (deliberately) laboured style offended against the cult of spontaneity expressed in the ‘loose doodle’. It was principally as an illustrator, the rival of Rackham and Dulac, that he started to enjoy a comeback in the Medici Society's exhibition (1972) and in John Lewis's book Heath Robinson: Artist and Comic Genius (1973). In the same year Duckworth published Inventions, the first among several reprints of his cartoons. The Science Museum in London mounted a touring exhibition of his work in 1973 and others followed, the most notable being those at the Chris Beetles Gallery, London (1987, 1992, and 2000); the Royal Festival Hall, London (1992); and the city art galleries of Portsmouth (1976), Sheffield (1977), and Manchester (2000). Further studies were published, the most comprehensive being James Hamilton's William Heath Robinson (1992). The prices of his artwork soared. The most expensive picture at the memorial exhibition in 1945 cost £26 5s.; in 1992 Chris Beetles was selling one for £25,000.

The significance of Heath Robinson's humour has been variously interpreted. He himself saw it as 'a gentle satire on the fussiness of people, the people who take themselves very seriously and have no sense of humour' (West Australian, 14 Jan 1939). Langston Day saw him as the caricaturist of machinery who, unwittingly, 'struck a blow at Machine Worship and enabled the machine-servers to laugh at their Frankenstein' (Day, 243). He quoted Kenneth Bird (Fougasse), who thought of Heath Robinson as the enemy of mass production. James Hamilton in William Heath Robinson (1992) saw his comic art as reflecting both his desire for order and his impulse to try to build a better world through encouraging man's creativity.

These interpretations have to be set in the context of Heath Robinson's total lack of pretension. He was not by intention any sort of reformer, simply a professional entertainer providing for a large family by giving the public what it wanted, with a charm that derived from a childlike innocence and optimism. In so doing, he created his own world, the mark of a great cartoonist.

Sources

  • J. Hamilton, William Heath Robinson (1992)
  • W. Heath Robinson, My line of life (1938)
  • J. Lewis, Heath Robinson: artist and comic genius (1973)
  • L. Day, The life and art of W. Heath Robinson (1947)
  • G. C. Beare, The illustrations of W. Heath Robinson: a commentary and bibliography (1983)
  • G. Beare, ‘W. Heath Robinson’, The inventive comic genius of our age: W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944) (1987) [exhibition catalogue, Chris Beetles Gallery, 4–27 March 1987]
  • G. Beare, introduction, in G. Beare, The brothers Robinson: Charles, Thomas Heath and William Heath Robinson (1992) [exhibition catalogue, Chris Beetles Gallery and Royal Festival Hall, 17 Feb – 20 March 1992]
  • A. E. Johnson, W. Heath Robinson (1913)
  • R. Furneaux Jordan, ‘Introduction’, The Penguin Heath Robinson (1966)
  • A. E. Johnson, ‘The line drawings of W. Heath Robinson’, The Studio, 67 (1916), 223–38
  • A. L. Baldry, ‘The art of Mr W. Heath Robinson’, The Studio, 89 (1925), 243–9
  • F. Swinnerton, Reflections from a village (1969)

Archives

Film

  • BFINA, current affairs footage

Likenesses

  • R. Procter, photograph, 1935, repro. in Day, Life and art
  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1938, repro. in Heath Robinson, My line of life
  • G. Worsdell, oils, 1943, NPG [see illus.]
  • W. Heath Robinson, self-portrait, lithograph caricature, repro. in Lewis, Heath Robinson; priv. coll.
  • H. L. Oakley, silhouette, NPG

Wealth at Death

£1596 11s. 1d.: probate, 1 Nov 1944, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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