The Art of William Heath Robinson by Geoffrey Beare, published by Paul Holberton for the Dulwich Picture Gallery. ISBN 1898519234 £24.99pb
HE said of himself: "I really did have a secret satisfaction in
being considered rather mad", and you know instantly now what the
Eden Project people mean when they describe some of their wild
sculptures as being "like Heath Robinson on acid".
The "Gadget King'', the great humorist William Heath Robinson, is
a rarity, for his name has entered the English language, defined by
The New Oxford Dictionary of English as "ingeniously or
ridiculously over-complicated in design or construction".
A hugely enjoyable exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery which
ends on January 18 and then tours to Bath, Liverpool and Newcastle,
shows off some of the best of Heath Robinson's cartoon art and also
focuses importantly on the artist's work as a brilliantly
imaginative illustrator, the equal of Arthur Rackham and Edmund
Dulac. It is the view of the author of this book, Geoffrey Beare,
who has been collecting William Heath Robinson's work for more than
30 years and who is a tireless champion of WHR, that Robinson's art
is far superior to that of both men.
William Heath Robinson was born in London in 1872 and died in
1944. He made his name in the heyday of the sumptuously illustrated
presentation editions of Shakespeare, The Arabian Nights and
collections of the classic fairy stories. When that rich market
dried up with the First World War, he turned to overt comedy and
the cartoon. The extraordinarily inventive and surrealist side to
his imagination was given full expression in his illustrations to
The Adventures of Uncle Lubin, published in 1902 and written by the
artist. The image of Uncle Lubin sailing serenely in his wonky
balloon, with its ship's anchor, dangling bag of sandwiches,
blunderbuss, brolly and hand-cranked propellor, clearly show
Robinson's love of improbability.
Robinson increasingly turned to magazine work and gradually became
the unparelleled practitioner of the comic image and also the
master of the caption. As an antidote to horror, Robinson's
satirical First World War cartoons are a joy with their gentle
absurdities such as Inventions rejected by the Inventions Board
(1916) including the Pilsner pump for stealing the enemy's supper
beer, and Huns using siphons of laughing gas to overcome our troops
which appeared in Some Frightful War Pictures in 1915. His book of
original line drawings called The Saintly Hun: A book of German
virtues is a delicious satire.
The Second World War, which saw three of Robinson's sons join the
conflict, featured the enemy less often as he felt the Nazis were
too terrible to be portrayed by his gentle humour, so he
concentrated instead on civilians coping on the home front with his
How to Extinguish an Incendiary Bomb without Leaving Your Bed,
while his Stout members of the sixth column dislodge an enemy
machinegun post on the dome of St Paul's of 1940 was the choice of
poster for the exhibition.
His How To... self-help series of manuals published from 1935
onwards were enormously popular... How to be a perfect Husband, How
to Live in a Flat and, perhaps best of all, particularly when we
are now drowning in a sea of self-help books, is his How to Make
the Best of Things.
Geoffrey Beare's catalogue is copiously illustrated, thoroughly
researched, with much bibliographic information for collectors and
all in a rather serious vein, but written by a passionate admirer