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The watercolours and illustrations that reveal the other side of Heath Robinson

a delicate green tinged watercolour of a girl in flowing dress seated on river bank under tree.

Girl in flowing dress seated on river bank under tree. Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Heath Robinson is celebrated in a new exhibition in 2018 that celebrates his quirky contraptions but also reveals his mastery of watercolour landscapes and book illustration

The name Heath Robinson may be synonymous with impossible contraptions and quirky machinery held together with string and powered by kettles and candles, but the author of these eccentric creations was also a talented painter and illustrator.

Born into a family of artists in London in 1872 William Heath Robinson trained at the Royal Academy School and his ambition was to become a landscape painter.

However, in order to establish himself financially, the artist turned to the family trade of book illustration, and, later, comical drawings for magazines, which proved extremely popular and gained him the acclaim – and entry into the popular language that persists to this day. By the time of his death in 1944 he even had a code-breaking machine at Bletchley Park – a forerunner of the game changing Colossus computer – named after him.

In 2018 The National Trust’s Mottisfont in Hampshire is exploring this extraordinary creative journey with an exhibition featuring over 60 original pieces covering the breadth of his work, from witty cartoons to dream-like watercolour landscapes and illustrations, including scenes from Shakespeare.

a drawing of dead people laying on a shoreline

A Song of the English by Rudyard Kipling. ‘There’s Never an Ebb Goes Seaward Now, but Drops our Dead on the Sand. Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

a photo of a woodern lighthouse with a sailed ship in the distance

A Song of the English by Rudyard Kipling. The Coast-wise Lights of England Give You Welcome Back Again! Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

a photo of a girl in profile next to a stream

Girl in Greek dress carrying basket of washing. Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

The romantic house and gallery set in beautiful riverside gardens in the village of Mottisfont, near Romsey, is collaborating with the Heath Robinson Trust to create the show, with works on loan from the recently opened Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, North London, including some of Heath Robinson’s earliest published works, among them illustrations for The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), which he both wrote and illustrated.

This book brought his imaginative wit to the fore, and included early examples of the contraptions that were to secure his fame.

There are a number of the classic, unnecessarily complex processes achieving simple objectives, featured in the exhibition, such as ‘Doubling Gloucester cheeses by the Gruyere method in an old Gloucester cheese works – when cheese is scarce’ and a welcome outing for the First World War cartoons, which used gentle satire and absurdity to counter German propaganda and fear.

a watercolour of shadowed figures in the foreground and a sunlit bazaar in the distance

Eastern Market Scene. Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

an illustration of small children and babies peering through the reeds at the corner of a riverside

The Water-babies by Charles Kingsley. ÔÇÿThere are Land Babies ÔÇô then why not Water-Babies. Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

a cover design for a magazine with a toy seller selling figures from a tray with small people crowded around his ankles

Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine, cover design for Christmas Number 1929. Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

an illustration showing an elevated view of a couple seen through a break on a tree leaf canopy

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Olivia – ÔÇÿWell, come again tomorrow; fare thee well. Photos © The William Heath Robinson Trust

But it was book illustration that set Heath Robinson on the road to fame. His two elder brothers Tom and Charles were successful book illustrators and by the late 1890’s he was creating sumptuous book illustrations for, amongst others, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies.  Evoking the heyday of fin de siècle illustration, these exquisitely rendered romantic painted works are full of rich detail and are stunningly delicate.

Often working on designs for the whole book, from its binding, title page and lettering through to its illustrations, his masterpiece in this medium is still held to be his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1914) in which he set out to provide ‘a record of … the most wonderful moonlight night in fantasy’.

Among aficionados, his stunning illustrations for Rudyard Kipling’s paean to Empire,  A Song of the English, with its rousing depictions of the sacrifices of soldier’s and sailors defending far flung shores is also held to be a masterwork, but while his book designs and popular illustrations provided his main income, Heath Robinson never lost his love for painting. He would pursue watercolour landscape painting in his spare time throughout his life and a series of landscape works reveal another side to the artist, albeit one that seems somehow tentatively in touch with the cartoons, contraptions and certainly the book work.

a watercolour depicting two naked females under an ivy tree in the middle distance

Nymphs & trees. Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

an illustration of a street lined with trees with a policeman walking along it

Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate. Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

a watercolour of a naked girl swimming in a lake under tree.

Girl swimming in lake under tree. Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

an illustration of an archway ad courtyard and a figure in the foreground

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Duke – ÔÇÿSo full of shapes is fancy. Photo. © The William Heath Robinson Trust

He later wrote of this passion: “I devoted much time to watercolour painting at home, relying very largely for this on my imagination… I have tried all through my life as an artist to keep this side of my work alive”.

Heath Robinson’s watercolours can be seen in the exhibition in a series of beautiful subdued yet atmospheric paintings like Nymphs & Trees, Eastern Market Scene, Girl in flowing dress seated on river bank under tree, which all evoke an innocence and a mastery of the form.

The delight given by Heath Robinson’s absurd contrivances will endure, but his beautiful, impressionistic watercolours provide another insight into the mind of this most gentle of men.

an illustration of the face of a young girl peering through an undergrowth of leaves and flowers

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. The Little Robber-maiden. Photo © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Heath Robinson: Dreams and Machines is at Mottisfont in Hampshire January 20 – 15 April 2018


Mottisfont, National Trust

nr Romsey, Hampshire

A romantic house and gallery set in beautiful riverside gardens. Ancient trees, bubbling brooks and rolling lawns frame this 18th-century house with a medieval priory at its heart. Maud Russell made Mottisfont her home in the 1930s, bringing artists here to relax and create works inspired by Mottisfont’s past, including…


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