William Heath Robinson was born in 1872. Thanks to his work as an illustrator, in 1903 he felt sufficiently secure to marry. In 1908 his son, Oliver, was born and the family moved from their flat in Holloway to the village of Pinner in what was then rural Middlesex where other children were born.
The years from 1908 must have been very happy ones for Heath Robinson. He took great pleasure in his garden and in the society of his neighbours, among whom was the artist Bert Thomas who became a lifelong friend. Heath Robinson’s brother Tom also lived in Pinner. They were often joined by friends from London for walks in the surrounding countryside and eventually they formed a walking group known as “The Frothfinders’ Federation” of which their brother Charles was also an active member. Heath Robinson’s chief memories of their walks were of good ale, beef, vegetables, friendship and song. A blue plaque marks the house in Moss Lane where Heath Robinson lived.
In the 1930’s, Heath Robinson was known as ‘The Gadget King’ and he is still most widely remembered for his wonderful humorous drawings of highly complicated machines performing simple tasks such as raising a man’s hat or ‘Doubling Gloucester cheeses by the Gruyère method’.
Humorous art was only his third choice of career. On leaving the Royal Academy School in 1895 his ambition was to become a landscape painter. Realising that this would not pay the bills, he followed his two older brothers into book illustration. He rapidly established himself as a talented and original practitioner.
However, in 1904, a publisher who had commissioned a large quantity of drawings was declared bankrupt and Heath Robinson had to find another source of income. He turned to the high-class weekly magazines such as The Sketch and The Tatler, who paid well for large, highly finished, humorous drawings, and within a year he was being acclaimed as a unique talent in this field.
During the years 1906-1916 Heath Robinson successfully combined the careers of comic artist and serious illustrator, producing what was to be his best work in both fields. This was the age of the gift book with its sumptuous binding and tipped-in coloured plates. His contributions to the genre include Bill the Minder, a children’s book, that he both wrote and illustrated. Other Heath Robinson gift books include editions of Shakespeare’s plays, Kipling’s poetry and fairy tales by Hans Anderson and Perrault. His black and white illustrations for A Midsummer Night’s Dream rank among the finest produced for any book in the last century.
By the end of World War I the market for lavishly illustrated gift books had all but disappeared. The gap was readily filled since his talents as a humorist were in ever- increasing demand, especially for advertising and occasional commissions for fantasy illustrations. For his own pleasure he continued to paint in watercolours, experimenting with the effects of light and colour.
His importance, as an innovator in the fields of illustration and advertising, and perhaps more importantly as the heir of Rowlandson and Cruikshank in the British humorous tradition, has yet to be fully appreciated as his work is poorly represented in public collections.
We are now putting this right by building a new Heath Robinson Museum, currently under construction on the West House site and opening in 2016.