As Derby Museum & Art Gallery devotes an exhibition to the illustrator, Lauren Allen looks at his life and works and why he occupies a special place in the hearts of Derby makers

Great British Life: A convenient little room for early breakfastA convenient little room for early breakfast (Image: heath robinson derby museums copyright protected)

The moment that changed the world of cartoon history forever came in 1887 when up-and-coming artist William Heath Robinson abandoned his aspirations to become a landscape artist and switched to illustrating books.

He first gained renown in the publishing world with illustrations for a ground-breaking edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in 1899, followed by works such as an edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, for which he was highly acclaimed. This helped to exercise his artistic talents, but the pictures of complicated and outlandish cartoon contraptions, for which he was to become a household name, arose from three children’s books he both wrote and illustrated: The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), Bill the Minder (1912) and Peter Quip in Search of a Friend (1922).

The Adventures of Uncle Lubin was the start of his career as a depictor of implausible machines; the artwork of the Aeronaut on the cover hinting at the playful mind of the author and giving some indication of the crazy stories to be found inside.

Heath Robinson’s work struck a chord with the British love of eccentricity and inventiveness and his appeal was not just due to the contraptions he invented but also to the obliviousness of the people using his machines as if they are perfectly acceptable everyday aids. This was his way of poking fun at modern living and caricaturing the age of the rise of the machine. His work eventually appeared in the pages of The Sketch and Tatler, who commissioned him to delight their readers with whimsical drawings of crazy and complex inventions that achieved ludicrously simple time-saving results.

Great British Life: Railway Ribaldry - Electric TelegraphRailway Ribaldry - Electric Telegraph (Image: heath robinson derby museums copyright protected)

Heath Robinson came into his own during the First World War as he turned his attention to military machines, creating gentle satirical cartoons which soon proved hugely popular with the soldiers. Indeed it was during the war years that machines which seemed complicated without being immediately practical or effective became widely referred to as ‘a bit Heath Robinson’.

During the Second World War, such was Heath Robinson’s fame that it was said his caricatures of Germans, the Home Front and the machines of war made a contribution to the war effort by raising morale. Behind the scenes, his sons went off to fight for Britain and, explaining why his cartoons did not seem to feature the enemies as might be expected, he said he felt the Nazis were too terrible to be shown by his gentle humour.

William Heath Robinson died in 1944 and although he was never comfortable being pigeonholed as a whimsical cartoonist – preferring to be appreciated as an artist with a wider range – his name will forever be associated with any machine that is improbable, amateur and only functioning because of a combination of constant tinkering, lashings of duck tape and sheer luck.

The original version of the Aeronaut on the cover of The Adventures of Uncle Lubin, and another picture from the book, The Submarine, form part of a collection of 35 pieces of Heath Robinson artwork that are on show at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until March. Entitled ‘The Curious Contraptions of Heath Robinson’, the exhibition provides a pictorial history of his career as ‘The Gadget Man’. The added attraction of hosting an exhibition in Derby is that as the home of Rolls-Royce, Bombardier and Toyota, it is very much a maker’s city.

Great British Life: How to avoid being caught in any part of the fieldHow to avoid being caught in any part of the field (Image: heath robinson derby museums copyright protected)

‘Heath Robinson’s work is about making madcap machines in a world of “serious” manufacturing, as is Derby’s,’ says Jonathan Wallis, head of museums, ‘and his work is synonymous with the spirit of many things that Derby Museums have been doing recently to celebrate Derby as a city of makers.

‘We are very honoured to have it here with us. His work has not been displayed in Derby on this scale since 1941, when according to the curators’ diary it was the most successful exhibition of the year.’

The pictures – including a local link to Derby’s railway history with Heath’s illustration ‘An Early Signal’ – are on loan from the William Heath Robinson Trust which is currently developing a new museum at West House in Pinner, Middlesex.

The exhibition at Derby will be accompanied by a series of events and projects to allow visitors to explore their own inventive and ‘wacky’ sides – ensuring Heath Robinson and his madcap creations continue to inspire a new generation of makers.

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