In the 1930s William Heath Robinson (1872 -1944) was known as "The Gadget King" and he is still most widely remembered for his wonderful humorous drawings. But humorous art was only his third choice of career, and one that he turned to almost by accident. On leaving art school in 1895, his ambition was to become a landscape painter. He soon realised that such painting would not pay the bills, so he followed his two older brothers into book illustration where he rapidly established himself as a talented and original practitioner. The creator of inimitable illustrations for Poetry by Poe and Kipling, Andersen's Fairy Tales, A Midsummer Night's Dream, de la Mare's Peacock Pie, The Water Babies and Perrault's Fairy Tales, his interpretations have ranked him alongside Rackham and Dulac, achieving classic status around the world. He is also loved for the unique children's books that he both wrote and illustrated, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin and Bill the Minder.
Trained at the Royal Academy Schools, it was his skills as a draughtsman combined with his unique vision that accounted for his success both as an illustrator and as a humorist. As a graphic artist, he was constantly experimenting, adopting different styles according to his subject. His was the first generation of artists whose work could be translated straight to the page without the intervention of an engraver and, like Beardsley and his other contemporaries, he took full advantage of the possibilities this presented.
This exhibition offers the chance to see a selection of original drawings and paintings representing all aspects of his output, the majority from the collection of The William Heath Robinson Trust. The Trust was established to conserve and exhibit the collection of the works of William Heath Robinson made by his daughter, Joan Brinsmead.
The Trust's pictures are complemented by a small number of loans, most importantly a selection of watercolours and drawings from an unpublished edition of Shakespeare commissioned by Jonathan Cape in 1921. These pictures have only recently been rediscovered and had never been exhibited. In the complete works of Shakespeare Heath Robinson was presented with subjects ranging from bawdy comedy to high drama, and from tender romance to brutal violence. He was also presented with a severe challenge by the scale and format of the project. His response, illustrated in the exhibition with a selection of the surviving drawings, was to reach back into the store of images developed during the previous 25 years, but also to develop completely new styles as the subjects demanded.
At the time of his death in 1944 only a minority of his public remembered his work as a serious illustrator, but like Hogarth and Rowlandson before him the appeal of his humorous art was largely the result of his considerable talents as a serious artist. He was unusually prolific, with a seemingly inexhaustible stock of good ideas. The basis of his humour was human nature, and so the majority of his work seems as fresh and relevant today as when it was first published. The artist is no longer with us, but his spirit lives on in his gentle and perceptive humour.
Previous tour venues include:
Dulwich Picture Gallery
The Holburne Museum, Bath
The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Harrow Museum and Heritage Centre
Southampton City Art Gallery
The Burton Art Gallery and Museum, Bideford, Devon
Hereford Art Gallery
The Lightbox, Woking
Derby Museum and Art Gallery
The Trustees are actively seeking other venues for this exhibition.