It's All A Bit Heath Robinson At Dulwich Picture Gallery

By Carolyn Bandel | 06 November 2003
Shows a photograph of a drawing which depicts a vicar standing on top of a church spire, performing a wedding ceremony to a congregation that is flying around him in aeroplanes.

Photo: The First Aero Wedding, 1917. Pen and ink. © The William Heath Robinson Trust.

After fashioning a means of transport from several household items... and a wheelie bin, Carolyn Bandel headed for south London for an appointment with William Heath Robinson.

William Heath Robinson’s comical scenes of lively revelry, bizarre contraptions and wacky cartoons earned him a place in the English dictionary.

Almost 60 years after his death, the work of "The Gadget King" has finally gone on display in an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery until January 18, 2004.

William Heath Robinson was a household name in post WWI Britain. He was an unusual creative artist with a seemingly inexhaustible stock of good ideas and his immediate appeal and popularity resulted mainly from his humorous work.

Shows a photograph of a drawing which depicts two flats one above the other. In the top flat a group of people is dancing around on a floor of matresses wearing headphones, while in the lower flat a person is lying asleep in bed.

Photo: how to take advantage of the Savoy Orpheans dance music broadcast by the BBC without disturbing your neighbours in the flat below, 1928. © Private Collection.

The basis of the exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery though, is that Heath Robinson was far more than "The Gadget King", the inventor of comical drawings of fantastic machines for which he is still widely known.

For decades Robinson was ranked alongside Arthur Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley, as one of Britain’s foremost literary illustrators. "I think he was an enormously influential artist" says Ian Dejardin, Curator of the exhibition.

Over a hundred original drawings and paintings, mostly from the collection of the William Heath Robinson Trust, show Robinson as the creator of unique illustrations for poetry by Poe, Kipling, Shakespeare and other great writers.

With the exhibition the trust hopes to raise £3,5m to create an archive dedicated to Robinson in Pinner, Middlesex, where he lived after the First World War for ten years, during one of his most creative periods.

Shows a photograph of a drawing depicting a man in a hot air balloon above a village. A bag and an anchor are hanging from the basket, while the man is moving the balloon by turning a handle connected to a propeller.

Photo: The Aeronaut, 1902. Pen and ink. © The William Heath Robinson Trust.

The highlight of the exhibition is a selection of more than 20 illustrations from a Complete Works of Shakespeare, which were only discovered recently.

When, in 1921, he was commissioned by the publishing house Jonathan Cape for the illustrations, over 400 drawings should typify the new edition of The Complete Works.

By the end of June, 1922 Robinson had finished his commission, but either because of a lack of funds or the declining market for illustrated books after the First World War, the edition was never published and it was not until the publishing house moved office in 1991 that a number of the original illustrations were unearthed.

Even though the illustrations on display give an interesting insight into the darker side of Heath Robinson, it is disappointing that his fine grasp on the absurd has been almost completely ignored.

Shows a photograph of a drawing which shows a couple sat opposite each in chairs, playing draughts on the carpet using long handled

Photo: Modern Carpet Designs may provide endless entertainment for your guests. Pen and ink. © The William Heath Robinson Trust.

He never really wanted to become a comic artist and he much preferred a life as an illustrator, but the success of his advertising art and his semi-impossible contraptions cannot be denied.

The small selling show that features some of the "machine and inventions" cartoons he made for Tatler and Sketch magazines slightly makes up for this. During the first two weeks of the run of the exhibition over 100 works will go on sale.

Had Heath Robinson been born maybe thirty years earlier, he probably could have lived his life without ever having to become a commercial artist. But, for some odd reason, people are less likely to buy beautifully illustrated children’s books when there is a war going on.

It is a fact though that at the time of his death in 1944 only a minority of his public remembered his work as a serious illustrator, but the appeal of his humorous art was largely the result of his considerable talents as a serious artist.

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