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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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…