Paula Rego

This Sunday (24th October) marks the end of the UK’s largest and most comprehensive retrospective of Paula Rego. Thousands of people have visited Tate Britain to view the exhibition, with tickets regularly selling out each day. Yet, Paula Rego is not a well-known name amongst the average Londoner, so the popularity of the temporary display of work was surprising. Rego is a Portuguese-British visual artist whose work style has evolved from Abstract to Representational over her sixty-year career. Her imaginative power has revolutionised how women are represented in art, and her work often reflects feminism alongside folk themes from her native Portugal.

Paula Rego was born on 26th January 1935 in Lisbon, Portugal. At the time, the Estado Novo (New State) controlled the country, suppressing political freedom and drastically limiting the rights of women. Rego’s anti-fascist father and mother moved to England in 1936 for work, leaving the young Paula in Portugal with her grandmother. Rego learned many Portuguese folk-tales from her grandmother, many of which later made their way into her artwork.

Rego’s parents returned to Portugal in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. They had become Anglophiles during their time in England and sent their daughter to the English-speaking Saint Julian’s School in Carcavelos. Rego attended Saint Julian’s from 1945 until 1951, after which her parents sent her to England to a finishing school in Sevenoaks, Kent.

Noticing Rego was unhappy at the finishing school, her British guardian, David Phillips, helped her gain a place at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1952, which she attended until 1956. Rego had started drawing as a child, but this marked a turning point in her life. Through her studies, Rego developed her skills as an artist. She also began an affair with a fellow student, Victor Willing (1928-88). Rego allegedly had several abortions during their affair because Willing, married to Hazel Whittington at the time, threatened to abandon her and return to his wife if she kept the child.

Following the conclusion of her studies, Rego moved to Ericeira, Portugal, in 1957, where she decided to carry her latest pregnancy to full term. Willing eventually joined her after the birth of their child and officially divorced his wife in 1959. The couple married the same year and had two more children. They divided their time between Portugal and Britain, where Rego purchased a house in Camden Town, London.

Rego’s art career officially began in 1962, when she began exhibiting with The London Group, an art society based in London. Founded in 1913, many British artists have joined as members, including Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Sir Frank Bowling (b. 1934), Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), David Hockney (b. 1937), L. S. Lowry (1887-1976), and Walter Sickert (1860-1942). In 1965, she took part in the Six Artists exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.

During the 1960s and 70s, Rego produced collages made from fragments of newspapers, magazines and drawings. She looked at newspaper articles, proverbs and children’s stories for inspiration, but also focused on her experiences. The Firemen of Alijo (1966), for example, was inspired by a group of firemen she saw in Alijo, Portugal, while staying with her parents in 1965. It was winter, her father was terminally ill with cancer, there was no heating in the house, and everyone felt grumpy. While wandering around the town, Rego noted how poor the area was and saw a group of firemen huddled together to keep warm. They were unpaid volunteers with soot-stained skin and no shoes on their feet. She produced The Firemen of Alijo in homage to them.

Most of the collaged fragments of The Firemen of Alijo are drawings, which Rego cut up and stuck onto a painted canvas. The abstract firemen have strange body features, such as a badger’s head and a seal’s tail. Bird-like figures represent fighting angels, which Rego included to represent the medieval history of the town of Alijo. For many people, the artwork looks like an abstract assortment of shapes and lines, but for Rego, it depicts human emotions, nightmares and desires. Rego paints “to give terror a face”.

Between 1971 and 1978, Rego produced artwork for seven solo shows in Portugal. These included a series of illustrations of traditional Portuguese folk tales. She continued the surrealist tradition of combining fragments, fine art and popular culture to create abstract scenes, which meant more to the artist than the viewer. Around this time, Rego experienced Jungian therapy, which made her more aware of the influences on human behaviour. Through her collages, she tried to show the emotions the characters were feeling as well as why they felt that way.

Rego abandoned collage in the 1980s and started making bold paintings with thick outlines. Many artworks from this era feature animals with human characteristics. Whilst the caricature-like figures appear more playful, they explore the darker, emotional side of human relationships. Several of Rego’s paintings from the early 1980s reflect her childhood and experiences.

Paula Rego once stated, “to do a picture I always need a story to start with, although as I go along the story may change or the picture may change.” Nanny, Small Bears and Bogeyman (1982) is based on the autobiography of Elias Canetti (1905-94), a German author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. Canetti wrote about his childhood nanny, whose boyfriend threatened to cut out Canetti’s tongue. In Rego’s painting, the bogeyman, on the left, is the boyfriend, and the young Canetti is the small bear. The nanny holds the small bear, preventing him from escaping. Rego interpreted the nanny as the evil character in the story because she did nothing to protect the little bear from her boyfriend.

In 1984, Rego made independent and rebellious girls the main subjects of her artwork. Women in Portugal had very little freedom of expression under the fascist dictatorship of Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970). Rego depicted these women, some more subtly than others, rebelling against the oppression. She also expressed female sexual desire, which may stem from her husband’s many affairs during their marriage. During the 1980s, Victor Willing became increasingly unwell with multiple sclerosis and could no longer provide Rego with physical love.

During the 1980s, Rego had a series of solo exhibitions in London, Bristol and Portugal. Her paintings of rebellious women were featured in retrospectives at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1988. In the same year, Victor Willing passed away, and Rego completed one of her largest artworks, The Dance. Rego hoped to include The Dance in the exhibitions but, due to circumstances beyond her control, did not finish it on time.

As well as The Dance, Tate Britain displayed several preparatory drawings, which Rego donated to the gallery when they purchased the painting in 1989. Rego experimented with several combinations of dancing figures, including seven women jubilantly jumping around. The final composition features eight figures of various ages dancing on a moonlit beach. Several critics have developed explanations for the scene, including the cycle of femininity and Portuguese folk festivals. The fortress-like structure resembles a military fort on the Estoril coast in Caxias, used as a prison and torture site during the rule of Estado Novo.

In 1990, Rego became the first Associate Artist at the National Gallery, London. Eight years after her residency, the gallery asked her to produce something that responded to a painting in the National Gallery. Rego chose a cycle of paintings by William Hogarth (1697-1764) called Marriage-A-la-Mode, which told a tale of arranged marriage, betrayal and death. Rego reworked the story to resemble the Portuguese culture and memories of her youth. Whilst Hogarth’s narrative contained six canvases, Rego limited herself to three, creating a triptych for the National Gallery’s Encounters: New Art from Old exhibition in 2000.

The first panel of the triptych, The Betrothal, shows two mothers discussing the future marriage of their young children. The adolescent boy clutches at his mother as though scared about the prospect of marriage. The little girl, on the opposite side of the painting, slouches in her chair, bored with the conversation. Neither boy nor girl has any say in the matter about their future. The middle panel, Lessons, is based on Hogarth’s fourth panel, The Toilette. Instead of a dressing room, Rego painted a beauty parlour where the girl, now a teenager, watches her mother have her hair done. Rego described the scene as an apprenticeship in femininity, a lesson about how to be a woman.

The final panel, The Shipwreck, represents Hogarth’s fifth scene, The Bagnio. In Hogarth’s story, the husband falls to the ground after being shot by his wife’s lover. In Rego’s version, the boy, now a married man, has frittered away all his money. He is literally being supported by his wife, the girl in the previous paintings, whose meagre belongings are scattered around the room. The woman stares into the distance, contemplating an uncertain future as this destitute man’s wife.

Before appropriating Hogarth’s narrative paintings, Rego based many of her work during the early 1990s on nursery rhymes and stories. Her Nursery Rhymes series of prints was later published as a book. Following the traditions of earlier artists such as Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), Rego created a fantastic realistic illustration for each nursery rhyme, often dressing animals up as humans. Yet, as is the nature of some rhymes, there is a hint of the sinister in her drawings. Rego produced prints of 26 nursery rhymes, including Three Blind MiceBaa Baa Black SheepHey Diddle DiddleLittle Miss MuffetThe Grand Old Duke of York, and Polly Put the Kettle On.

As well as nursery rhymes, Rego explored the darker side of fairy tales, such as Pinocchio, Peter Pan and Snow White. When Rego watched Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as a child, she described it as “like discovering a new world”. Yet, it is also a frightening story for young viewers, where good and evil coexist in a disturbing atmosphere. Whilst the seven dwarfs are playful, the evil queen plots murder.

The stories of Pinocchio and Peter Pan are equally disturbing. Rego took inspiration from Disney’s version of The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1826-90), in which unruly children are punished, transformed into donkeys and sold into slavery. In Peter Pan, written by J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), lost children wind up on a desert island where pirates wish to kill their eponymous leader. Rego also produced artwork based on adult works of fiction, such as Haunted by Joyce Carol Oates (b.1938) and The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).

In 1994, Rego started focusing, once again, on female figures. Her style had drastically changed since the 1970s, going from collages to almost realistic paintings. With pastels, Rego painted independent women who broke stereotypes and did not cater for the male gaze. Rego began working with the model Lila Nunes and produced a series called Dog Women, in which the sitter demonstrated primal needs and emotions.

Another series, Bride, focused on the sexual side of a marital contract. Instead of Nunes, Rego used her daughter Victoria as the model. The paintings show a less aggressive emotional state than Dog Women. Still wearing her wedding dress, the bride waits for her husband after the wedding ceremony but with no sense of joy or anticipation.

Without collage or surrealism to hide behind, Rego’s artwork became more shocking and raw. In 1998, she painted an untitled series depicting women in the aftermath of illegal abortions in Portugal. At the time of painting, women were not allowed to have abortions except for medical reasons; those who did faced up to three years in prison. Around the same time, Rego painted a series based on The Crime of Father Amaro by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz (1845-1900), which portrayed women as the victims of abuse at the hands of men.

In the 2000s, Rego’s art style changed again. Using props, live models and handmade “dollies”, Rego set up scenes in her studio, which she then drew in pastel. Many works from this period return to Rego’s memories of Portugal, particularly dictatorship, war, and the treatment of women. Others were inspired by contemporary news items, such as the war in Iraq, which began in 2003. A photograph of a screaming girl in a white dress running from an explosion published in the Guardian newspaper at the beginning of the war inspired one of Rego’s paintings.

“I thought I would do a picture about these children getting hurt, but I turned them into rabbits’ heads, like masks. It’s very difficult to do it with humans, it doesn’t get the same kind of feel at all. It seemed more real to transform them into creatures.” Simply titled War, Rego transformed the Guardian‘s photo into a scene of rabbits and other hybrid creatures. This echoes some of her previous work, for instance, Nursery Rhymes, featuring anthropomorphic characters.

War was first shown at the Marlborough Gallery, London, as part of an exhibition called Jane Eyre and Other Stories, in October 2003. The following year, Royal Mail commissioned Rego to create a set of Jane Eyre stamps. These saw a return to the style of prints Rego produced in the early 1990s.

Rego’s most recent works focus on abusive acts, such as the trafficking of women, female genital mutilation, and other appalling news stories. These artworks are hard to look at and study for any length of time, which reflects people’s reactions to reading and hearing about such abuse. It is difficult to understand why people commit these horrific acts, and Rego wishes to open the public’s eyes, hoping someone, anyone, will do something about it.

The exhibition at Tate Britain is the largest and most comprehensive retrospective of Paula Rego’s work to date. Yet, at 86, Rego is still producing art, so there could well be a larger exhibition in the future. As a result of her work, Rego has received honorary degrees from the Winchester School of Art, the University of St Andrews, the University of East Anglia, the Rhode Island School of Design, the London Institute, the University of Oxford and Roehampton University. In 2010, Rego was made a Dame of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

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GOSH: The Children First and Always

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GOSH or, more formally, Great Ormond Street Hospital is a children’s hospital in the Bloomsbury area of London that has been in practice for over one and a half centuries. Every day, over 600 children or young people arrive at the hospital for life-changing treatment. Thanks to extraordinary charitable support, doctors have been able to achieve pioneering medical breakthroughs and thousands of children have been given a new lease of life. Now the most famous hospital in the country, GOSH has an interesting history that is worth investigating.

Opened as the Hospital for Sick Children on 14th February 1852, the first UK hospital dedicated to inpatient care for children only contained ten beds. Despite this, the hospital grew with the help of royal interest and the insistent campaigning of its founder, Doctor Charles West. Born in 1816 to a Baptist preacher and schoolmaster, West received his first education in his father’s school until he was apprenticed at the age of 15 to a general practitioner in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Little did he know he would grow up to become what the British Medical Journal of 1898 deemed, “One of the men who have helped to make the reign of Queen Victoria a memorable period in the history of medical progress.”

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Charles West photographed by G. Jerrard.

From 1833, West spent two years as a medical student at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Barts) in London. After his father’s theological opinions prevented him from attending Oxford University, West decided to complete his education on the continent. He first attended a university in Bonn, followed by Paris, and finally Berlin where he completed his medical degree in 1837. His first positions as a professional took place at the Rotunda Hospital and Meath Hospital in Dublin, however, by the 1840s, he had returned to Barts in London.

West was appointed as a physician to the Universal Dispensary for Children in Waterloo Road, then a lecturer in midwifery at the Middlesex Hospital in 1845 and later again at St Bartholomew’s. During this time, he became more and more involved in the treatment of children and earned fame for his book Lectures on the diseases of infancy and childhood (Longman 1848).

Despite several attempts, West failed to transform the Waterloo Dispensary for Children into a hospital, therefore, he changed tact and began a fundraising campaign to establish a London children’s hospital. Due to his medical acclaim and way with words, West successfully raised enough money to establish a tiny hospital at 49 Great Ormond Street in a house once belonging to the physician Richard Mead (1673-1754). From the very first day, the hospital began to grow and now has almost 40 times the amount of beds.

“The Hospital for Sick Children (…) was the first hospital for children ever established in this country. The poor now flock to it, sick children from all parts of London are brought to it.”
– Charles West (1854)

Doctor Charles West’s new hospital would not have become the successful establishment today without the help of dozens of notable people and medical achievements. Many of the doctors that worked at the Hospital for Sick Children, later Great Ormond Street, were at the forefront of medical science, participating in new trials and developing techniques and inventions. Sir Thomas Smith (1833-1909), for example, who was House Surgeon at the hospital in 1854, was the first surgeon to try antiseptic surgery in 1875. He also specialised in cleft palate surgery.

The Historic Hospital Admission Records Project lists Lady Superintendent Catherine Jane Wood (1841-1930) as “an unsung hero in the history of nursing at Great Ormond Street and in the field of paediatric nursing as a whole.” She began volunteering at the hospital as a teenager, reading to the patients and doing a few menial tasks that the nurses were too busy to do. Later, Wood was appointed Ward Superintendent and received tutelage from Doctor West. In 1868, she left Great Ormond Street to establish the Hospital for Hip Joint Disease (later to become the Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Disease), however, was coaxed back to GOSH to take up the position of Superintendent of Wards at the hospital’s convalescent home Cromwell House in Highgate.

Whilst many children benefitted from Wood’s care, she was most concerned about the wellbeing of other nurses. Many had not received proper training and were treated more as housekeepers than medical personnel. At a time when women had very little rights, nurses had little importance and many of them worked voluntarily. Determined to change things, Wood introduced a training scheme for children’s nurses that provided specialised and appropriate training. She became a founder member of the British Nurses’ Association and campaigned for the registration of nurses and improved education.

Even after resigning from Great Ormond Street, Wood continued to help improve the wellbeing of nurses. She published many works, her most famous being two handbooks, The Handbook on Nursing (1878) and The Handbook for Nursing of Sick Children (1889). She also instituted a pension and savings scheme for nurses and maintained a close connection with the development of nurses’ welfare for the remainder of her life.

Over time, Great Ormond Street has had some unconventional doctors, including Doctor Roger Bridges (1844-1930), who is the only physician to have become Poet Laureate. He was initially educated at Eton College and Oxford University before going on to study medicine at St Bartholomew’s. Whilst he may not have been involved with any scientific breakthroughs or great changes at the hospital, Bridges was a conscientious physician and was sensitive to the suffering of the children. Rather than distance himself as some doctors are prone to do, Bridges made his patients’ wellbeing a priority.

Roger Bridges left medical practice behind at the age of 40 to concentrate on his poetry. His decision eventually paid off when he was appointed Poet Laureate from 1913 until his death in 1930. His poems typically focus on his deep Christian faith and, although his fame came late in life, some of his works have been put to music by Hubert Parry (1848-1918) and Gustav Holst (1874-1934). Bridges is also remembered for writing and translating hymns, some of which are still sung today, such as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, When morning gilds the skies and All my hope on God is founded.

A doctor of medicine who did play a part in medical developments was Sir Thomas Barlow (1845-1945). Barlow had grown up in a philanthropic family who helped to fund charities connected with the Methodist church, including Action for Children. Barlow, therefore, was no stranger to disadvantaged children when he began working at Great Ormond Street Hospital in the 1870s. By 1899, Barlow had been promoted to a consultant, however, he made his claim to fame much earlier. In 1883, Barlow proved that infantile scurvy was identical to adult scurvy and that rickets was not always a symptom of the disease. As a result, Barlow’s Disease (infantile scurvy) was named after him.

Barlow’s second claim to fame came after his time at Great Ormond Street. Appointed to Royal Physician Extraordinary and knighted as a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, Barlow was at Queen Victoria’s bedside when she passed away in 1901. He was also the physician of Edward VII and George V.

Without a doubt, the person with the biggest association with Great Ormond Street Hospital is James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937) – or, one could say, Peter Pan. In 1929, Barrie generously gifted his copyright of Peter Pan to GOSH. The hospital continues to benefit from Peter Pan’s popularity.

Born the ninth of ten children in Kirriemuir, Scotland, to a conservative Calvinist family, Barrie was schooled in the “three Rs”: reading, writing and arithmetic. When he was eight, Barrie attended Glasgow Academy where his eldest siblings, Alexander and Mary Ann, were teachers. Two years later, he switched to Forfar Academy and then, at 14, enrolled at Dumfries Academy. He loved to read and, being small (he only grew to 5 ft 3), Barrie fought for attention by storytelling and acting.

After obtaining an MA from Edinburgh University, Barrie moved to London to start his career in literature and theatre. His first accommodation was in Grenville Street, which lies behind Great Ormond Street Hospital. It is said he based the Darlings’ family home in the story of Peter Pan on this house.

Peter Pan was inspired by the Llewelyn Davies family who Barrie met and befriended in Kensington Gardens. Arthur (1863–1907) and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (1866–1910) -daughter of the cartoonist George du Maurier – had five sons: George (1893–1915), John (Jack) (1894–1959), Peter (1897–1960), Michael (1900–1921) and Nicholas (Nico) (1903–1980). The character of Peter Pan is said to be based upon the characteristics of these five boys. Barrie also used their names in the story: Peter Pan, the children John and Michael Darling, and the father George Darling. Nico, who was only a baby at the time, was not included.

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Statue of Peter Pan outside the hospital

The much-loved Peter first appeared in 1902 in a chapter of The Little White Bird titled Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. From here, Barrie continued the story in the stage play of Peter Pan, which opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in 1904. Due to its phenomenal success, Barrie novelised the story and published it as Peter and Wendy in 1911.

Throughout his time in London, Barrie regularly supported GOSH and in 1929 he was asked to sit on a committee to help buy land in order to build a new wing for the hospital. Whilst he declined, he generously donated all his rights for Peter Pan, which meant the hospital received and continues to receive all the profits. The hospital has benefitted greatly from this gift, particularly after Peter Pan was made into a silent film in 1924 and a Disney animated film in 1953.

J.M. Barrie is not the only well-known children’s author connected with GOSH. British author Roald Dahl (1916-90), who is famous for stories including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, assisted with ground-breaking work at the hospital.

Dahl and his wife Patricia (1926-2010) had five children: Olivia, Chantal, Theo, Ophelia and Lucy, whom they loved very much. So, when Theo was severely injured after his baby carriage was struck by a taxi, Dahl was determined to do everything he could to help his son. As a result of the accident, Theo suffered from hydrocephalus, which causes pressure inside the skull. Dahl, along with hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade and paediatric neurosurgeon Kenneth Till, worked diligently to develop a cerebral shunt to alleviate the condition. The valve, “Wade-Dahl-Till” (or WDT), successfully drained excess fluid from Theo’s skull and has since been used to treat almost 3,000 children around the world.

Australian surgeon Sir Denis Browne (1892–1967) is another notable name in GOSH’s history. Considered to be the forefather of modern paediatric surgery in England, Browne was the first full-time children’s surgeon and president of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons. Throughout his time at the hospital, Browne invented several surgical instruments, including a method of administrating anaesthesia to children.

For over 160 years, Great Ormond Street has seen the results of hundreds of experiments, inventions and medical developments that have helped to save the lives of thousands of children. In 1962, GOSH pioneered the first heart and lung bypass machine for children. Since then, over 500 heart and/or lung transplants have been conducted at the hospital. Today, GOSH is one of the largest centres for heart transplantation in the world.

In 1967, GOSH held the first clinical trials in the UK for the rubella vaccine. Within one year, 110 children had been vaccinated against the contagious viral infection. GOSH was also the first place to conduct a bone marrow transplant. In 1979, Professor Roland Levinsky (1943-2007) successfully cured several children with severe combined immunodeficiency by transplanting cells from a healthy donor into the bone marrow.

Continuing to research into immunodeficiencies, in 2000 the hospital launched the world’s first gene therapy trials for children born without functioning immune systems. Within a year, 14 children whose conditions had been diagnosed as fatal, had been cured.

The latest breakthrough at GOSH took place in 2001 with the introduction of heart valve replacements. Rather than subject young children to open-heart surgery, the valve can be inserted via a blood vessel.

As well as medical inventions, workers at GOSH are constantly researching to improve treatments, find cures, and ultimately achieve a greater understanding of the illnesses their patients present. Professor Roger Hardisty (1922–1997) was the first professor of paediatric haematology in Britain. He also opened the country’s first leukaemia research unit at the hospital in 1961, which made remarkable steps, changing a 100% death rate into a 70% survival rate.

GOSH do not only concentrate on physical illnesses but tackle mental disorders too. Mildred Creak (1898–1993) was both the first female consultant at the hospital and the founder of child psychiatry in Britain. Best known for her work on autism and organic mental disorders, Creak opened the first department for psychological medicine in the hospital. During the 1960s, autism was generally considered to be a result of inadequate parenting, however, Creak proposed that autism, or “schizophrenic syndrome of childhood” as it was then known, was primarily caused by genetic factors.

Creak was also responsible for increasing visiting hours at the hospital because she believed children would benefit mentally from seeing their parents. She had a better appreciation of a child’s emotional needs than previous consultants and also endeavoured to assist parents with their distress.

All of these people mentioned and more have helped to create the best hospital in the world for children. GOSH prioritises providing the safest, most effective and efficient care and promises to improve children’s lives through research and innovation.

The hospital has relied on charitable support since it first opened and receives the majority of its money through the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity. The NHS helps with the day-to-day running of the hospital but the fundraising income allows Great Ormond Street Hospital to remain at the forefront of child healthcare. The charity aims to raise over £50 million every year for research, rebuilding, life-saving equipment, and support for families. More information can be found on their website.

Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity (charity number 1160024)


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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.