Magazine article The Spectator

Illustration: The Joy of Heath Robinson

Magazine article The Spectator

Illustration: The Joy of Heath Robinson

Article excerpt

I first came across the extraordinary creations of the artist and illustrator William Heath Robinson at least 60 years ago. I loved them, even though I may not have understood every nuance. When I look once more at old favourites such as the machine for conveying peas to the mouth I often spot in the corner some little twist or joke that I had not seen before.

What also wasn't clear at the time is how prescient some of his contraptions were -- in one illustration you can see a prototype selfie stick; in another he invents the silent disco. Many of his madcap solutions were semi-serious responses to societal problems. Some weren't far off what serious inventors were coming up with themselves.

The expression 'Heath Robinson' has entered the dictionary to mean 'an over-ingenious, ridiculously complicated or elaborate mechanical contrivance'. But early domestic gadgets were often ridiculously complicated. Hubert Cecil Booth's original vacuum cleaner of 1901 was a steam-powered machine the size of a large cart, and pulled by horses. When you summoned it, the monster was brought to the road outside your house, and pipes led in through the windows. This was an important social event -- ladies would invite their friends to come and take tea and observe the wonderful machine in action.

Robinson, however, went even further. There was the improbable hydraulic device for clearing the breakfast table, the auto-shampoo chair, the complex mechanical slimming engine to pummel you into shape...

William Heath Robinson was born on 31 May 1872 in Hornsey Rise, north London. His father, Thomas Robinson, earned his living by drawing illustrations for the Penny Illustrated Paper. The children loved watching -- and copying -- their father. Heath claimed that at an early age he 'could draw a passable Zulu, with feathered headdress, long oval shield, and assegai'. When he was 15, Heath went to art school in Islington, where he and his fellow students 'worked hard intermittently and talked a lot about art'. He later acknowledged the influence on his work of many predecessors and contemporaries, including Aubrey Beardsley, Kate Greenaway and various Japanese artists.

On leaving art school, Robinson tried the romantic life of a landscape painter, but things did not work out -- a dealer advised him to try another profession. He made a collection of drawings instead and tramped round all the publishers in central London, eventually succeeding in selling a few.

By the time he was 24, Robinson was earning a living from his art. But it was his strip for the Daily News where the classic Heath Robinson image crystallised itself. It provoked much interest from a variety of industrial companies, who invited him to see the factories and draw what he found. These led to invitations, to see the manufacture of Swiss rolls, toffee, paper, marmalade, asbestos, beef essence and lager. A series of illustrations of 'Great British Industries' included such fantastical scenes as 'Stiltonizing Cheese in the Stockyards of Cheddar' and 'The Pea-splitting Shed of a Soup Factory'.

In 1914 H.G. Wells sent him a letter:

It may amuse you to know that you are adored in this house. I have been ill all this Christmas-time and frightfully bored and the one thing I have wanted is a big album of your absurd beautiful drawings to turn over. Now my wife has just raided the Sketch office for back numbers with you in it and I am running over lots of you. …

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