Tuesday, 10 July 2007


I used to write using a typewriter - the mechanics of which I understood. Now I write using a keyboard and a box of electronics about which I understand nothing - other than the fact that it can mysteriously change font, type size and colour at the tap of a key…

I think not understanding How Things Work is one of the underlying problems of Life Today which is probably one reason why The Cartoon Museum in London was packed out last week for the opening of the Heath Robinson’s Helpful Solutions, an exhibition of humorous drawings by that brilliant illustrator and inventor of imaginary machines whose name is listed the Oxford English Dictionary as a means of describing “any absurdly ingenious and impracticable device” - and, as often as not, home-made...

Click on image to enlarge
Image reproduced by kind permissions of Pollinger Limited and the Estate of
Mrs J. C. Robinson. Copyright © the Estate of Mrs J. C. Robinson.

It is claimed that one of the automatic analysis machines built for Bletchley Park during WWII to assist in the decryption of German message traffic (and a direct predecessor to the Colossus, the world's first programmable digital electronic computer) was named ‘Heath Robinson’ in WHR’s honour.

William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) was a stunningly talented decorative artist who provided exquisite embellishments to such works as Tales from Shakespeare, The Arabian Nights, Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and verses by Kipling, Poe and Walter de la Mare. He also wrote and illustrated two magical books of his own, Uncle Lubin and Bill the Minder and provided the pictures for Norman Hunter’s first book about the nutty Professor Branestorm.

But it was Heath Robinson’s reputation as ‘The King of Gadgets’ that endeared him to the nation and guaranteed his enduring fame.

Heath Robinson’s brilliance was in creating curious contraptions (of questionable necessity) such as a machine for inserting freshly roasted chestnut stuffing into the Christmas Turkey...

Image reproduced by kind permissions of Pollinger Limited and the Estate of
Mrs J. C. Robinson.
Copyright © the Estate of Mrs J. C. Robinson.

Other essential pieces of apparatus included a device for resuscitating stale railway scones for redistribution at the station buffets and 'The multimovement tabby silencer', which automatically threw water at serenading cats!

But Heath Robinson’s contraptions weren’t just wild flights of fancy, they were clearly designed to WORK - indeed the Cartoon Museum currently has a couple of functioning Heath Robinson machines on show!

Matching this authenticity of purpose (however misguided!) is a wonderful sense that these elaborately thought-out pieces of machinery have actually been lashed-up and bodged-together in a shed at the bottom of the garden using bits and pieces, odds and ends and this and that - the finished project invariably being powered by pulley-systems constructed from lengths of knotted string of the kind my grandfather used to keep in an old Oxo tin, “In case they came in useful”.

But perhaps the key quality of Heath Robinson’s work is its gentle, guiless, well-intentioned charm. Even during the carnage that was the Great War, when his cartoons were a regular feature in such long-gone periodicals as The Sketch, The Bystander and The Strand Magazine, his view of ‘the enemy’ was devoid of any hint of satirical bite. Even the cartoons made during the Second World War, whilst clearly aware of a different sensibility, still depict the Germans as bumbling amateurs destined, eventually, to be defeated by the equally amateur British who however have the innate advantage of dogged eccentricity!

Click on image to enlarge
Image reproduced by kind permissions of Pollinger Limited and the Estate of
Mrs J. C. Robinson.
Copyright © the Estate of Mrs J. C. Robinson.

The only question raised by the ingenious defence of the realm precaution shown above is how did all those stalwart British volunteers get to their posts? Or were they installed at low-tide by the means of ladders and then required to wait patiently until high tide?!

The exhibition (which runs until 7 October) and the superb accompanying catalogue chart William Heath Robinson’s career and present wall after wall loaded with wonderful pictures that simply cannot be viewed without a smile, a chuckle or a full-throttled guffaw.

So, if you find yourself within striking distance of The Cartoon Museum, take your funny bone inside and allow Mr WHR to give it a bit of a tickling!


The Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London WC1A 2HH.
Telephone: 0207 580 8155; Email: info@cartoonmuseum.org
Opening Times: Tuesday- Saturday 10.30-5.30; Sunday 12.00 - 5.30
Admission: £4.00 for adults; £3.00 for concessions; Free to Students, under 18s and Friends of the Cartoon Museum

Special Events (
Adults £5; Conc./Students £4; Friends £3):
* 31 July 2007 6.30- 7.30 pm ‘The Good-Tempered Pencil’ of William Heath Robinson -
Anita O’Brien co-curator of the exhibition talks about Heath Robinson’s humour, how the artist achieved his effects and asks to what degree he reflects his own time.
* 19 September 2007 6.30-7.30 pm
Gunning with Guile - Heath Robinson at War -
Anita O’Brien looks at Heath Robinson’s cartoons from the First and Second World War and discusses his different responses to two very different threats to the British way of life.
* 3 October 2007 6.30 - 7.30 pm
Innovative space making and architecture inspired by Heath Robinson's inventive world - C J Lim, Professor of architecture and Cultural Design at Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL and Heath Robinson enthusiast will talk about his love of the artist's work and how it inspires his work.


David Weeks said...

What was also fascinating was that admiring members of the public would also send to him suggestions for whacky inventions ~ some of which he then drew.

Boll Weavil said...

In these more enlightened times though, I'm suprised you didn't post a warning to the children amongst your readers to not 'try this at home'. The health and safety implications of many of these devices would have rendered them impractical for construction in the modern world.

Suzanne said...

I could have done with his turkey stuffing device... my attempts most often looked like they had been turned INSIDE OUT!

Brian Sibley said...

BOLL - Phew! Thank goodness you thought to remind everyone of that! I might so easily have laid myself open to all kinds of trouble...

SUZANNE - Next time your turkey looks like that - take a photograph: I know a gallery where you can show it!! ;-)

Elliot said...

Like an English Rube Goldberg (or the other way around).
I wonder if they knew of each others work...

Brian Sibley said...

ELLIOT - Yes, both men were often referred to in relation to each other: 'The American Heath Robinson', 'The English Rube Goldberg' and there are clearly similarities in their work.

I'm sure both knew of the other and, in 1935, WHR wrote: "Few people here have poached on my preserves, but in America there are imitators..."

As Simon Heneage observes in the exhibition catalogue, despite the stylistic differences between the artists, WHR could be said to have shared Goldberg's stated aim: to "lampoon the mechanical blight and, perhaps, to start people on the road back to simplicity."

Bentos said...

"wonderful pictures that simply cannot be viewed without a smile, a chuckle or a full-throttled guffaw."

Most political or satirical cartoons are practically incomprehensible just a few months after publication as the little details of whatever incident they're lampooning are forgotten. So this is probably as big a compliment as you can give.

Diva of Deception said...

Lovely subject and fascinating insight making me want to see the exhibition and go to the talk on 31st July - how about it Brian? Are you game to go too?

Brian Sibley said...

Yep, Diva. You got yourself a date! :-)