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Rapt by Heath Robinson

Robert Butler admires his ingenuity in Derby

Robert Butler | December 19th 2014

When you visit Derby Museum for the first time (as I did yesterday morning) and stand in front of its most famous painting, "The Orrery" by Joseph Wright of Derby, what’s immediately striking is not the partly obscured model of the solar system, and the way the painting—whose full title is “A philosopher lecturing on the Orrery”—illustrates the enormous excitement around 18th-century ideas about astronomy. What’s striking is the depth of concentration on the lamp-lit faces of the adults and children. They are seeing how something actually works. It's fitting, then, that until next March the museum is exhibiting other extraordinary examples of how things work: 30 illustrations by Heath Robinson, who did so much to satirise the Edwardian mania for machines.

Part of the comedy in a Heath Robinson drawing lies in the gap between the crazy elaborateness of the contraption and the modest demands of the task in hand: extracting juice from a lemon, say, or peeling a potato. There’s a simple pleasure in seeing how cogs, wheels, pulleys, levers, tubes, ropes and bits of string might achieve these ends. In one black-and-white picture in the exhibition, a cord comes down from a lampshade to a lightbulb that’s fixed at a right-angle to face a banana that’s stuck on an upright fork that itself is turning on a wheel that is attached to a candlestick holder. The title is “Frittering a Banana by Electricity”.

But another part of the appeal of the drawing comes from the three people in the picture—the matronly wife and young maid, both sitting patiently, and the stout middle-aged man (with his apron on) who is standing up doing the cooking. The figures carry the same air of rapt attention as the figures in “The Orrery”. Lookers-on have a central importance in Heath Robinson's work as they allow him to capture a cosy but solemn, largely male, largely bourgeois world of boaters and top hats, stripey pyjamas and eiderdowns, spectacles and turn-ups, tea-pots and hot-water bottles. So often, the machines these men have devised are tackling thoroughly first-world problems: from a self-operating napkin to an apparatus designed to convey green peas to the mouth, to a device for taking a photograph of yourself (the first selfie). These are men who will go to extreme lengths to make life slightly more comfortable for themselves.

At the end of the exhibition, the public are invited to design their own inventions and stick them on a display board. My favourite was a pencil drawing that tackled a very British problem. It depicts a mechanical arm like a crane (operated here by a stick-like man with four tufts of hair) which extends out of an apartment window into the sky. A separate wire runs above the crane, to which is attached a pole with a fishing net that can be twisted to various angles. Inside the net there's an oblong object with the Apple logo. The title of the invention is “Handy device to find that perfect mobile signal”. All the picture lacks is the lookers-on: balding, portly men, waiting with an air of preoccupation to see which position produces the most bars.

Heath Robinson Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, to 1st March 2015

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