PATRON SAINT OF MAD MECHANICS; Originally an Illustrator of Promise, It Was Perhaps William Heath Robinson's Misfortune That He Came to See a Funny Side in Everything
Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
THE term "Heath Robinson " appeared in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable long before the Oxford Dictionary conceded that it had become common English usage.
"That's a bit Heath Robinson," we said in 1945 when repairing the car's carburettor with chewing-gum or wrapping its exhaust in asbestos tape - and that was when the dear old man was quite newly in his grave. William Heath Robinson had only himself to blame for our giving his name to any incompetent, ingenious or merely ad hoc repair of a machine or installation subject to hiccup, spasm, fit or tantrum, for he was himself the inventor of machines of cat's cradle confusion and exceeding complexity to perform the smallest task. With a farting machine he could extinguish a candle, with a magnifying glass he could burn a man out of his bed, and he could peel potatoes with a pedaldriven spinning wheel.
One of his sons remembered his perimanicula as among the earliest of these inventions, a tool devised to remove gravy stains from gravel garden paths - and that, as amusements for Edwardian children, is how these fantasies began.
They adapted well to the adult humour of the day and by 1908 Heath Robinson was celebrated for "the solemn plausibility of his fantastic embroideries".
This "Gadget Man" should be to plumbers, electricians and mechanics what Priapus (the divine runt in a permanent state of sexual arousal) was once to gardeners in Ancient Greece - the household god, his name inscribed over the door of every handyman and writ large in gold leaf like a Latin motto on the delivery vans of Messrs B&Q and Homebase.
Among the welter of machines for abducting heiresses, tarring and feathering the statues in Trafalgar Square so deplored by Mayor Livingstone and resuscitating sandwiches bought on railway trains (I wonder if Keith Vaughan'smysterious machine for masturbation was inspired by Heath Robinson), we have perhaps forgotten that William was no mean painter in watercolour, often an exquisite draughtsman and an illustrator almost the equal of Rackham and Dulac in fantasy and skill. Art of this kind ran in his blood, his grandfather-a wood engraver, his father and uncle leading draughtsmen for The Penny Illustrated and The Illustrated London News, and his two older brothers, Thomas and Charles, artists and illustrators as accomplished as William, but without his bent for humour and absurdity.
All three brothers went to art schools, not with their heads full of the greenery-yallery art-for-art's sake bohemian nonsense current in 1895 when William left the Royal Academy Schools, but with the business of responsibility to commissions, deadlines and printing technology firmly dinned into them. Briefly he had ambitions as a landscape painter, but these were abandoned for the less well paid but much more secure work of illustration and, in 1896, he began to earn his living with work for periodicals and children's magazines, with illustrations to Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rabelais, Kingsley, Kipling, Poe and Andersen. In 1906 his Gentle Art of Catching Things established him as a comic artist and two years later the first of the mechanical inventions and ideas was published.
Gradually, and inevitably, the humorous work obscured his reputation as the serious illustrator of books rich, rare and beautiful, and his commissions came more and more from those who had dubbed him "The Gadget King" and saw him only as the mad inventor. The landscape ambitions of the youth were quite forgotten by the funny How-to man - How to be a Perfect Husband, How to be a Motorist, How to live in a Flat, et al, et al. Perhaps it was as well that gadgetry usurped the landscapes, for painters of Devon valleys and the Norfolk Broads were legion, and William would have been but one of thousands sending such pictures to the Royal Academy each summer. In gadgetry he was unique. In art he was just another creature of his time, his styles, tricks, mannerisms and formulae those of Brangwyn, Rackham, Conder, Greenaway, Nicholson, May and Sheringham, with occasional hints that he was aware of D'rer; his pictorial devices were first those of Symbolism and Art Nouveau, and later of Art Deco. …