Wednesday - 03 September 2014

Genius of the absurd

02 February 2004Written by ATG Reporter

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 of WHR.

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