A Serious Museum with a Smile on its Face

On the edge of Pinner Memorial Park, Harrow is a museum devoted to the painter, illustrator and cartoonist William Heath Robinson (1872-1944). With over 1000 artworks, the Heath Robinson Museum explores the life and artistic progress of the celebrated “Gadget King”. Regardless of age or prior knowledge, the museum is a place for everyone to enjoy, as the website states:

“The Heath Robinson Museum is for students of illustration, lovers of landscape paintings, advertising enthusiasts and academics, dads building contraptions in sheds, believers in fairies, children with time to dream, couples stuck in tiny flats, people who put holes in cheese, artificial teeth testers and anyone who’s ever held something together with a bit of string.”

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William Heath Robinson

The term “a bit Heath Robinson” may be familiar to some but its origin has almost fallen into obscurity. Entering the English language in 1912, the term is used to describe any sort of ad hoc contraption or complicated gadget that has been assembled from everyday objects. As the museum reveals through a visual timeline of Heath Robinson’s life, the artist was most famous for his humorous drawings that often involved mindboggling, bizarre ideas.

William Heath Robinson was born on 13th May 1872 in Finsbury Park, North London. Being the third son of Thomas Robinson (1838–1902), a wood-engraver and illustrator who drew for The Penny Illustrated Paper, William was encouraged to develop his artistic skills.  William “didn’t want to be anything else than an artist,” and enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools where he excelled as a landscape painter. Unfortunately, landscapes were unlikely to earn Heath Robinson enough money to live comfortably, therefore, he began his career working alongside his illustrator brothers, Charles (1870–1937) and Tom (1869–1954).

 

Heath Robinson’s first published illustrations featured in The Sunday Magazine in 1896 and, soon, he was receiving commissions for book illustrations. One of the first books to include his drawings was a reprint of Don Quixote (1615) by Miguel de Cervantes, which was followed by The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe in 1900. Two years later, Heath Robinson wrote and illustrated his own story, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), which provided him with enough money to finally marry his fiancée Josephine Latey.

The Adventures of Uncle Lubin was the first instance of humour Heath Robinson expressed in his work. Aimed at children, Uncle Lubin was a comically dressed man in baggy leggings and an oversized floppy hat. The gentle, serious uncle is left to look after his nephew Peter, however, whilst he is napping, an evil “bag-bird” swoops down and kidnaps the child. Desperate to save his nephew, Uncle Lubin sets out on a series of adventures, involving remarkable inventions and contraptions, for instance, an air-ship and an underwater boat. Despite the highs and lows of the story, Uncle Lubin and Peter are eventually reunited in an enchanting conclusion.

Having succeeded with child humour, Heath Robinson continued to draw comical illustrations, this time for adults. In 1906, The Sketch ran a series of his cartoons titled The Gentle Art of Catching Things in which he began to reveal his imagination and crackpot inventions. The Sketch, having profited from Heath Robinson’s contributions, commissioned another series of cartoons in 1908, Great British Industries – Duly Protected.

 

By 1908, Heath Robinson could afford to buy a house in Pinner, the same town in which the museum is located. This coincided with the development of colour printing, which allowed multiple copies of coloured illustrations to be produced in books. The same year, Heath Robinson was commissioned to draw 40 large coloured pictures for Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night. Although he was progressing with his humorous illustrations, this project proved he could also compose serious outcomes.

In 1912, Heath Robinson produced coloured illustrations for his own story Bill the Minder. Turned into a television series for Channel 5 in 1986, the book tells of the adventures of fifteen-year-old Bill and his cousins Boadicea and Chad. In a Heath Robinson-like manner, the characters solve their unique problems with the use of exotic, handmade machines, for example, fitting balloons and pedals to a broken aeroplane to make it fly again.

The following year, Heath Robinson produced a series of coloured illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Although he had to return to a more serious style of drawing, Heath Robinson was able to use his imagination to develop the magical characters that fill Andersen’s stories.

 

Once again, Heath Robinson was asked to illustrate a Shakespeare play, this time A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This included a number of coloured illustrations as well as the traditional black and white. Given the nature of the play, Heath Robinson was able to use his experience of fantasy drawing and combine it with his love of comedy.

By now, the First World War was afoot and book illustrations were not the main priority of book publishers. In 1915, for instance, Heath Robinson was commissioned to illustrate Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, however, the publishers only wanted eight coloured pictures. This was a massive drop from the 40 illustrations produced for Twelfth Night seven years earlier. Soon, book illustrating jobs had temporarily dried up altogether.

 

The war period, however, gave Heath Robinson plenty of opportunities to produce humorous, satirical illustrations. Collected together and published in books such as Some Frightful War Pictures and Hunlikely! (1916), Heath Robinson used satire and absurdity to counter the German propaganda that was leaving Britain afraid and disheartened.

Aiming to lighten the mood, Heath Robinson depicted the enemy in farcical situations and British troops using imaginative contraptions to win the war. An example shown at the museum depicted the Huns (Germans) using laughing gas instead of mustard gas in an attempt to defeat the British.

 

Heath Robinson continued to make people laugh after the end of World War One with a weekly cartoon in The Bystander Magazine. From here on, Heath Robinson was regarded as the “Gadget King”, designing new, increasingly eccentric contraptions, usually combining everyday objects. These over-the-top machines were preposterous ideas but the characters in the illustrations were taking the situation so seriously that people began to question whether they were silly schemes or not.

In 1935, Heath Robinson returned to book illustration, however, this time it was in collaboration with the writer K. R. G. Browne (1895-1940). Based around Heath Robinson’s many gadgets, the pair published four “how to” books, beginning with How To Live In A Flat. This was shortly followed by How to Be A Perfect Husband, How to Make a Garden Grow and How To Be a Motorist, which are now, unfortunately, slightly outdated.

Unlike the other three books in the series, How To Live In A Flat is still relatable today as it applies to any building with limited space. At the time it was published, the thought of living in a flat was a new idea that many, particularly Heath Robinson, were struggling to come to terms with. The illustrator was averse to modern architecture and design, which shows in his satirical drawings that mock the tiny rooms in a flat. Browne and Heath Robinson thought up all the potential difficulties the limited room would throw up, inventing space-economising inventions to produce a little more comfort.

 

Heath Robinson thinks of every aspect of flat-living, planning beds that fold down from wardrobes, communal rubbish shoots, central heating and multi-purpose furniture. In some ways, he was ahead of his time, developing ideas that, whilst absurd at the time, would eventually become a common commodity. Take, for example, the coffee machine. Heath Robinson would be amazed at the technology available today, especially because coffee can be made by merely touching a button, rather than using candles and a range of obscure objects.

 

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Architecture Model (2016)

In the centre of the exhibition space at the Heath Robinson Museum sits a model of the flat described by Browne and Heath Robinson in How To Live in A Flat. Produced as part of a Btec Architecture, Interior and Product Design course at Harrow College, Estera Badelita constructed many scenes from the illustration and combined them together to make one model. On the roof, roof-top hikers are walking around in a continuous circle, a couple of people are diving off a balcony into a swimming pool on the balcony below, and another person is sitting on an outdoor chair attached to the wall of the building.

 

If it had not been for Browne’s death in 1940, the artist and writer partnership may have produced more books in the series. Nonetheless, Heath Robinson worked with the journalist Cecil Hunt (1902-54) during the Second World War on a new series of “how to” books aimed at boosting the morale of the public. Titles included How To Make The Best Of Things, How To Build A New World and How To Run A Communal Home, the latter produced just in case people needed to take in lodgers due to shortages of houses after the Blitz.

As well as developing his reputation as the “Gadget King”, Heath Robinson spent the period between 1915 and his death in 1944 producing advertisement illustrations for a number of clients. Companies that benefitted from Heath Robinson’s combination of serious and comical drawings include Chairman Tobacco, Johnny Walker Whisky and Connolly Brothers Ltd.

“… humour may be merely refreshing and light-hearted jollity, without which the world would be a sadder place to live in.”
– Heath Robinson

Heath Robinson was saddened by the start of another World War in 1939, however, similarly to the previous war, he attempted to lighten the mood with his illustrations. Rather than satirise the enemy, Heath Robinson focused on the Home Front in his weekly drawings for The Sketch. The museum displays a couple of examples from this period; one shows a group of large men using their weight to activate a machine that dislodges the position of an enemy gun post and another demonstrates an idea to hold up the enemy’s progress.

 

For children (or adults, why not?), the museum provides a couple of jigsaw puzzles of Heath Robinson’s wartime illustrations, including the above drawings. Alternatively, sheets of paper are provided to copy or draw new inventions. Other activities, such as spot the difference and worksheets related to the exhibition are available to keep younger visitors entertained.

 

Peter Pan and Other Lost Children

The Heath Robinson Museum consists of two exhibition rooms. One contains the permanent display of Heath Robinson illustrations and timeline, whereas, the other houses temporary exhibitions throughout the year. Since 25th August, an exhibition to commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage showcases the work of two exceptional Edwardian female illustrators.

As the exhibition title Peter Pan and Other Lost Children suggests, the illustrations come from books such as Peter Pan and others involving children. The two artists, Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (1862-1951) and Edith Farmiloe (1870-1921), despite being women, were successful in the book illustration industry. This exhibition celebrates the lives of two people who made a name and career for themselves despite the inequalities in Edwardian society.

Alice Bolingbroke Woodward was born in West London in 1862, a daughter of the British Museum geologist, Dr Henry Woodward. Like the rest of her sisters, Alice wanted to be an artist and her father encouraged this by asking them to draw scientific drawings for his lectures. After studying at various schools, including the Westminster School of Art, she took her first steps to become a commercial artist with a commission to illustrate an article in the Daily Chronicle (1895).

Alice’s big break occurred in 1907 when she received a contract from the publisher George Bell & Sons to illustrate The Peter Pan Picture Book based on the original play by J. M. Barrie. Alice was the first person to ever illustrate the famous story of Peter Pan; many of these drawings are currently framed on the walls of the Heath Robinson museum. The initial print run of 5750 copies quickly sold out and 10,000 more were printed. Soon, Alice’s illustrations were familiar to children all over Britain.

A few years later (1914), the publishers contacted Alice with a request for eight coloured full-page illustrations, cover design, title-page and endpapers for a new edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. After a brief dispute about the commission fee, Alice readily accepted. Keeping to the physical characteristics imagined by the original illustrator of the story, John Tenniel (1820-1914), Alice used her well-loved method of pen ink and watercolour to produce a handful of beautiful drawings.

Edith Farmiloe is, perhaps, the lesser known of the two women, at least with the younger generations, although, she had a distinct style of illustration. Born in Chatham, Kent in 1870, Edith did not receive the art education and support that Alice Bolingbroke Woodward received as a child. It was not until 1891, when she married Reverend Thomas Farmiloe, that she began experimenting with story writing and illustration. She admitted that she could not draw from nature, however, her characters took on a unique, simple but appealing appearance.

Between 1895 and 1909, Edith wrote stories about poor children, which were printed in magazines alongside her illustrations. Eventually, the publisher Grant Richards asked her to illustrate a large picture book for children, the result being All the World Over, which demonstrates children’s fashion and activities in a range of different countries.

A follow-up book to All the World Over was requested in 1898 that focused on children seen on the streets in Soho, London. On this occasion, the story, or verses, were written by Edith’s sister Winifred, and together they produced the book Rag, Tag, and Bobtail.

Edith was also interested in the increasing Italian immigrant community in London, which inspired her children’s story Piccallili, published in 1900. The illustrations complement the story about life in Italy and its comparison with the streets of London.

Edith wrote a few more books for children on similar themes up until her death in 1921. The Heath Robinson Museum gift shop has postcards for sale featuring Edith Farmiloe’s illustrations but, unfortunately, lacks any memorabilia of Alice Bolingbroke Woodward’s drawings.

The Heath Robinson Museum has curated an outstanding little exhibition that introduces visitors to illustrators who have been largely forgotten about. It is refreshing to learn about female artists, especially those working in a male-oriented world. The Heath Robinson exhibition is also exceptional and visitors come away feeling as though they knew the “Gadget King”.

The Heath Robinson Museum is open from 11am until 4pm on Thursday to Sunday and charges £6 (£5 for over 65s, £4 for children) to view both exhibitions. Peter Pan and Other Lost Children will close on 18th November 2018 to make way for an exhibition about Heath Robinson’s home life.