Heath Robinson’s ramshackle, homemade inventions, which appeared in illustrations for books and magazines as well as advertising in the first half of the 20th century, have a unique place in the British cultural consciousness.
Their gentle humour, combined with a certain kind of eccentric work ethic, has proved hugely influential on artists and filmmakers that followed Robinson, as a new book on his commercial art points out.
Heath Robinson’s Commercial Art is written by Geoffrey Beare, the collections and exhibitions manager at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north-west London, and the book accompanies an exhibition on Robinson’s advertising work which runs at the museum until February.
Robinson famously produced many book illustrations for both children and adults, though these projects were often financially supported by his commercial work, which he began early in his career when a publishing deal fell through.
The book and exhibition feature some of Robinson’s most renowned ad work, for brands such as Hovis and Johnnie Walker, as well as far more obscure pieces, created for trade journals and booklets and not widely distributed. The book also contains a detailed history of this aspect of Robinson’s work, looking at the various industries, from heavy engineering and mining to food and drink, that he produced illustrations for.
This is the first major book to concentrate on this side of his work. Many of the drawings featured in the book and exhibition are now almost a century old, and while they may appeal in part because of nostalgia, the inventiveness of Robinson’s mind continues to shine through.
“His subjects were human nature and particularly those individuals who had an inflated view of their own importance,” writes Beare in the book’s introduction. “He quickly discovered that this could be demonstrated through over-complicated machinery, and so were born the Heath Robinson gadgets and contraptions for which he was to become famous.”
Robinson’s influence stretches beyond illustration and advertising, of course. Writing in the book’s introduction, Aardman Animations founder Peter Lord recalls the early inspiration of the artist, whose work he first came across while still at school in the late 1960s. The influence of Robinson’s ideas can easily be seen in the contraptions created by Wallace in the Wallace and Gromit films, as well as other features such as Chicken Run.
Lord was first drawn the storytelling quality of Robinson’s drawings. “You really do have to read his drawings and realise there is a narrative in there,” he writes. “They are jokes to be read in time and space, the eye tracking around from one detail to another, where immensely complex machines work the entirety of their physical splendour to achieve something rather small, and maybe even quite banal. It is the set-up of these visual jokes, and the surprising turns they take, that I find profoundly funny, whilst marvelling at the sheer imagination behind their creation.
“This sense of humour I think is similar to Aardman’s,” Lord continues. “There are many different aspects to British humour, some of it quite dark and sarcastic, but Heath Robinson’s is gentle and charming. I don’t see much of a hard edge in there, which is partly why we love to come back to his work.”
Beare’s book recognises Robinson’s early popularity in the US, before he was superseded by Rube Goldberg, another master gadget maker, whose name went on to enter the dictionary as a description for over-complicated mechanisms created for simple tasks.
The author points out the subtle differences between Goldberg and Robinson’s approach: “Goldberg was an engineer who drew cartoons, while Heath Robinson was an artist who drew some contraptions,” he writes. “Goldberg’s gadget drawings are always accompanied by detailed explanations of how they work, and the drawing style is that of the 1930s comic strip.
“Heath Robinson’s inventions are beautifully rendered, often set in finely depicted landscapes or townscapes and need no explanation. The humour depends on the fact that there is no hint of the comic in the way they are drawn.”
Beare also acknowledges some of the creative difficulties that commercial work created for Robinson, issues which may feel familiar to creatives in the ad industry today.
“For Heath Robinson his commercial work was of great benefit, but not without its drawbacks,” writes Beare. “It was a blessing in providing him with a substantial income at a time when the market for his style of illustration had dwindled. It also allowed him to present his humorous work to the public in much finer reproduction than magazines could offer.
“On the negative side, it is clear from surviving correspondence that he found
it tedious working for companies with a top-heavy management structure whose managers or directors all had to put in their two penn’orth of comment on his designs, leading to repeated requests for changes,” he continues.
“It must sometimes have been tedious to be asked to devise the umpteenth set of wheels and pulleys to represent the making of macaroni or the bleaching of cloth. However, he took pride in delivering the best possible product and delighted in adding humorous details in the backgrounds of the drawings.”
Heath Robinson’s Commercial Art by Geoffrey Beare is published by Lund Humphries, priced £40; lundhumpries.com. Heath Robinson in Advertising is on display at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner until February 18; heathrobinsonmuseum.org