It’s one thing for an artist to establish a reputation, another for them to enter the dictionary. When the British want to describe a whimsical, improvised or over-elaborate mechanism, they call it a “Heath Robinson” machine, after the drawings of William Heath Robinson. (Americans have a direct equivalent in Rube Goldberg, whose creations, inspired by similar rapid changes in society and technology, are remarkably similar to those of his British counterpart.) A new exhibition of Heath Robinson’s work shows how he became a household name, in more ways than one.
Heath Robinson was born in London in 1872, the third of seven children. His childhood was happy, even though the family had little money to spare. He spent hours making his own toys, which would plant the seed for his later work. His father was an illustrator and he and his two elder brothers followed suit – although in Heath Robinson’s case, only after an impecunious stint as a landscape painter. He had better luck drawing illustrations for luxurious editions of Shakespeare and collections of fairy tales, but it was as a comic artist that he would, in his 30s, find his métier. He had his first great success in 1902 with “The Adventures of Uncle Lubin”, a children’s book whose hero flies by patchwork balloon. It was the first of many eccentric machines he would draw. In the first world war, his lightly satirical cartoons featuring unlikely secret weapons held by the Germans became so popular that by 1917 “Heath Robinson” had entered common parlance.
“Heath Robinson’s Home Life”, at the museum dedicated to him in the north London suburb of Pinner, where he lived, focuses on the work that cemented his fame: the fantastical illustrations of domestic scenes that he drew for magazines and books from the 1920s until his death in 1944. Heath Robinson was inspired by the rapid expansion of housing in interwar Britain. In the cities, blocks of flats were springing up, and suburbs – fed by new transport links and the rise in car ownership – were mushrooming. In total, 4.5m new homes were built in the 1920s and 1930s, and in London, by the start of the second world war, more flats than houses were being constructed.
This period of transformation provided Heath Robinson with ample opportunity for satire. With a keen eye on the market, he collaborated with writer K.R.G. Browne on a bestselling series of spoof advice books, including “How To Live In A Flat” (1936), “How To Be A Perfect Husband” (1937) and “How To Be A Motorist” (1939). His wry yet affectionate pictures suggest he – like many other people in Britain – regarded the workings of this new era with a certain scepticism, yet also with considerable enthusiam. To Heath Robinson, as to his many admirers, his was an age of both absurdity and wonder.
“How to Dispense with Servants in the Bedroom” (1921)
Before the first world war, it was not only grand households that employed servants – they were common in middle-class homes too. Even poorer families might pay a girl to assist around the home. The war helped put an end to this. Working-class women, many of whom had taken on what had traditionally been seen as “men’s jobs” during the war, realised that domestic service was no longer their default job opportunity. “You just can’t get the help!” became the much-parodied cry of the middle-class matron. To Heath Robinson, the disappearance of servants, which was encouraging the development of labour-saving domestic technology, like vacuum cleaners, was an ideal hook for his outlandish imaginary contraptions. In a series of drawings for the Sketch, a magazine, called “Heath Robinson Does Away with Servants” (1921), he proposed impractical devices made from cogs, pulleys, cords and wires that could perform simple household tasks. What makes his pictures funny is the people in them. Heath Robinson always gave his characters a kind of dumpy amiability, as they stoically tried to adapt to the brave new world around them.
“The Folding Garden” (1933)
Heath Robinson specialised in juxtaposing fantasy with the mundane. This is another illustration he made for the Sketch, this time for a series called “An Ideal Home”. It provides the growing number of people living in flats with no outdoor space with an ingenious solution. This contraption folds out like a Murphy Bed to reveal everything you could want from a garden including a dog kennel, a cradle (that the baby’s father rocks with a foot pedal while smoking his pipe) and a clothes line, held aloft by balloons.
“The Spare Room” (1933)
This illustration is part of the same series. After a dinner party, a middle-aged couple use hand pumps to operate a pulley system that installs a mezzanine bedroom for their guest above the drawing room. Like “The Folding Garden”, it plays into middle-class anxieties about keeping up appearances while dealing with a shortage of space. Anyone who’s gone flat-hunting recently in one of our more overcrowded and expensive cities will feel a jolt of recognition.
Heath Robinson made this series come to life for the Ideal Home Exhibition of 1934 (above), an annual consumer fair that (to this day) celebrates the latest in interior design and home technology. Creepy mannequins inhabited a house full of ingenious if unlikely gadgets. The creators of the “Wallace and Gromit” films have acknowledged that many of Wallace’s inventions owe a great debt to those of Heath Robinson.
“Pets’ Playground” and “Communal Eurythmics” (1936)
Heath Robinson delighted in depicting people who appeared to be unaware of the peril they were in. The growing phenomenon of domestic life in the sky afforded him many such opportunities. In these illustrations for the book “How to Live in a Flat”, the balconies of modernist flats provide the setting for some unlikely, and dangerous, activities: children playing traditional games and adults taking part in synchronised exercises. Heath Robinson’s appreciation of fashionable architectural forms – Art Deco, with its elegant, sweeping curves, and the clean, geometric angles of the International Style – influenced his own approach, making his drawings bolder, sharper and less cosy.
“The Welsh Rarebit Machine” (1943)
By the 1940s, Heath Robinson’s focus had shifted to the realities of war. His later books had titles such as “How To Make The Best Of Things” (1940), “How To Build A New World” (1941) and in 1943, a year before his death, “How To Run A Communal Home”, from which this image is taken. The cheese-on-toast machine is reminiscent of the pancake-making and potato-peeling devices he drew for Norman Hunter’s early “Professor Branestawm” books. It may be silly, but the monochrome lines, the institutional setting and the candle-powered machine’s built-from-scrap appearance are a serious nod to wartime Britain’s make-do spirit. Like much of Heath Robinson’s work, it manages to be at once tongue-in-cheek and optimistic.
Heath Robinson’s Home Life Heath Robinson Museum until February 24th 2019