Creating a national centre for the understanding and appreciation of the life and work
of the artist and illustrator William Heath Robinson
In March 2012 the Trust, in partnership with colleagues in Pinner, was awarded a first round pass by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a project to provide a permanent, secure home for its nationally significant collection of Heath Robinson’s work as well as creating new opportunities for the public to explore the diverse output of one of this country’s best loved artists.
Securing a permanent home for a nationally significant collection
Heath Robinson is an artist of international standing and his work, whether in his well known humorous drawings or his illustrations for Kipling, Shakespeare or his own children’s stories, is integral to the fabric of British cultural heritage. His name entered the language as early as 1912 and is still in daily use.
“Heath Robinson is known primarily for the cartoons of bizarre machinery that have caught the public imagination to the point that his name has entered the language. However, in his early years he made a major contribution to the revolution in book design, illustration and decoration…and gave rise to a ‘Golden Age’ that was prematurely stifled by the First World War. Art historically this phenomenon forms part of international Symbolism and Art Nouveau, and was an important and internationally influential moment in the history of British visual culture…” Sir Nicholas Serota, Tate
The William Heath Robinson Trust (WHRT) is a registered charity established in 1992 to preserve and manage the collection of Heath Robinson’s work assembled by his daughter. The Trust’s collection is the only significant holding of his work in public ownership and includes over 900 pieces of original art work as well as his books and other published material and an archive of important letters. The national and international importance of the WHRT collection is attested to by letters of support from (amongst others): Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate; Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures; and Margaretta Fredrick, Chief Curator, Delaware Art Museum. The collection is currently in storage in temporary accommodation provided by the London Borough of Harrow.
The West House and Heath Robinson Museum Trust (HRMT) is a registered charity formed in 2001 with the aim of preserving West House in Pinner and creating new community facilities and a permanent home for the WHRT collection. The Trust has already completed Phase 1 of the project, having raised £1.5m from the local Council and other sources to restore West House and return it to community use with a café, function rooms and a small gallery. The building is well supported by the community, but there is only a small space, shared with the local Books of Remembrance, to exhibit items from the WHRT collection. The two trusts have therefore embarked on Phase 2 to raise funds to extend West House to create a new Heath Robinson museum with all the spaces and services required to enjoy, study and promote the work of this incredibly inventive and talented artist.
Our vision and the Project
Our vision is that, in addition to being a cultural centre and war memorial, West House will become the national and international centre for the understanding and appreciation of the life and work of William Heath Robinson and a unique centre for the wider study of illustration as an art form. This will be achieved by complementing the restoration of West House with a major new-build museum extension commissioned from ZMMA Architects. The building will comprise gallery spaces; an education suite; museum accreditation standard storage; research facilities; a shop and an office. A new permanent exhibition gallery will combine original artwork with books, photographs, film and digital media to tell the full story of Heath Robinson’s artistic career. Temporary exhibitions will provide a changing programme for a wide range of visitors.
We have developed exciting plans for education and other activities. The project will both expand and diversify the number and type of people visiting West House, and prepare the volunteer team to fulfil a broad variety of roles within the new museum. We will also enhance digital access to the collections and implement an exciting outreach programme to take Heath Robinson’s work out to a wider public. Through conservation and cataloguing we will enable access to one of the largest and most complete visual and documentary records of a professional artist’s working life to survive in Britain.
“The exhibition here at Dulwich demonstrated to the full what we, of course, hoped to be the case: Heath Robinson, more almost than any other illustrator, is seen as a national treasure because of his humour, and, time and again, visitors were astonished to encounter so many other aspects of his genius. The show was a revelation to our visitors, and enormously popular. The exhibition triggered a feeding frenzy of potential collaborators, and subsequently toured all over the country, such was the demand.” Ian Dejardin, The Sackler Director, Dulwich Picture Gallery
We know there is a real public hunger to see Heath Robinson’s work and to learn more about his life. In 2003 a major exhibition of works from the collection, supplemented with a small number of loans from private collections, was shown at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The exhibition had nearly 500 visitors per day and was widely reviewed in the National press. Its opening featured on both BBC and Channel 4 news programmes, and the BBC made a documentary film about Heath Robinson to coincide with the exhibition. The West House project was featured at the exhibition and in the accompanying book, which has so far sold 4900 copies. From Dulwich the exhibition travelled to the Holbourne Museum in Bath, the Walker Gallery in Liverpool and The Laing in Newcastle, achieving well above average visitor numbers at each venue. In Newcastle there were 87,760 visitors in a 15-week period.
Feedback from the touring exhibition and our audience research shows that Heath Robinson has the potential to inspire the young in a variety of ways. It can inspire innovative ways of thinking and an interest in engineering and science; it can spark an enthusiasm for the art of illustration and a desire to explore the relationship between words and images; and it can foster an interest in the social history which is so clearly recorded in much of his work.
Project Status and Funding
Having gained a round 2 pass from HLF, the past year has been spent in moving from the point where we had an approved outline architect’s design together with planning permission for the new building, to the appointment of a contractor and the start of construction.
The latter part of 2014 was spent in refining the design of the museum to the point where we could gain an accurate estimate of the total cost of the building. It became clear that building trade inflation was such that the cost would be significantly greater than the estimate on which we had based our HLF grant application. We therefore embarked on a process known as value engineering in which we looked at ways of reducing the cost without compromising the delivered performance of the building. This reduced the forecast cost of the building by nearly £200,000, but still left us with a funding shortfall. However, we decided that any more delay would only result in further cost increases. We therefore invited seven firms to bid for the construction contract. When the bids were returned all were higher than our recent forecast cost. Fortunately, the lowest bid was from a local company who had a good track record and showed a sound understanding of the project. The company was Philiam Construction Ltd based in Bushey, Herts., and they were selected as our preferred contractor. We then embarked on another round of value engineering with the contractor, which yielded further significant savings.
Having minimised our funding shortfall we went back to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and asked them to increase our grant in proportion to the unavoidable increase in building costs. In June they agreed to do so and on 6th July a contract was signed with Philiam to build the new museum. The company are now on site and construction has started. The forecast date for opening the Museum is in May next year. However, we still are left with a shortfall in our partnership funding of £140,000. To meet this we shall be making further approaches to Trusts and Foundations, we shall be seeking commercial sponsorship, particularly for exhibitions and other events, and we shall continue to encourage individual giving. It goes without saying that we shall greatly value your further support in finding ways to close this shortfall. You can make a donation using the button on our home page.
The project has the full support of Harrow Council and work is in hand to develop a Harrow Heritage trail that will include the new Heath Robinson Museum, Headstone Manor, Bentley Priory and Harrow School. Local community groups are fully supportive and Westminster University is engaged in supporting our development programme. Work is in progress to expand the existing learning programme with local schools. Strong links have been made with local Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and they are represented in the planning of future events.
“Given the exceptional range of William Heath Robinson’s achievements as a book and magazine illustrator, water-colourist, graphic artist and much-loved comic genius, the proposed creation of a properly equipped study centre and exhibition gallery at West House in order to preserve and make generally available one of the largest and most complete visual and documentary records of a professional artist’s working life to survive in Britain, represents easily the best and most realistic opportunity we now have of not only celebrating but also truly nurturing one of the great native traditions of cultural life in Britain.” Nick Savage, Royal Academy of Arts