Before William Heath Robinson's death in 1944 his surname was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as embodying 'absurdly ingenious and impracticable in design or construction'. His cartoons of convoluted contraptions and gimcrack gadgets regularly appeared in newspapers, magazines, advertisements and books - the Ministry of Defence even named a prototype of the Enigma code-breaking machine after him.
By using one of Heath Robinson's own inventions to promote his survey show, the Dulwich Picture Gallery banked on his reputation as the 'Gadget King' to pull in the crowds. However, it is not until the final room that any fantastic machines are on display. Instead, the exhibition focuses on Robinson's more 'serious' work, in an attempt to reinstate him, alongside Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, as one of England's foremost illustrators. The show traces his artistic development through commissions for luxury classic volumes, his children's stories and cartoons for magazines such as The Sketch, Tatler and Good Housekeeping.
As luck would have it, Heath Robinson's early career coincided with a golden age in British illustration. By the time he left art school in 1895, the
family name had already gained a reputation among London publishers, owing to the efforts of his elder brothers Charles and Thomas. The first rooms in the exhibition show the young William cutting his teeth with illustrations for such classics as Don Quixote (1897), The Pilgrim's Progress (1897), Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales (1899) and Edgar Allen Poe's Poems (1900). Although at times apprehensive or awkward, these early drawings reveal his knack for finding unexpected viewpoints and rendering the effects of light and reflection.
While his early illustrations are charming and competent, it is his children's book, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), that reveals Heath Robinson's talent as a consummate storyteller. The plot follows Lubin's search for the evil Bag Bird, who has abducted his nephew Peter. As both author and illustrator, Heath Robinson takes Lubin from the depths of the ocean to the North Pole, and introduces a fantastic cast of fairies, ogres, mermen and beasties. Many of these creatures reappear in later illustrations for The Water-Babies (1915), A Midsummer's Night Dream (1914) and The Book of Goblins (1934). Throughout the book Heath Robinson suspends the reader's disbelief by combining natural phenomena with supernatural events. For example, the mermen's hair floats upwards in the sea currents, and the icicles melt in the presence of Lubin's candle.
From here on the exhibition picked up the pace, and the illustrations for the two-volume Rabelais (1904) were among the most impressive in the show. Freer and more expressive than Lubin, these drawings prove Heath Robinson's powers of inventiveness are not merely limited to manic mechanics, but also extend to his treatment of physiognomy and gesture. Like Rabelais with his idiosyncratic prose, Heath Robinson injects a certain amount of black humour into these macabre scenes of debauchery and damnation. May You Fall into Sulphur, Fire and Bottomless Pits depicts a boggle-eyed, plunging victim being devoured by dozens of bloodthirsty critters. The grimacing peasants and devilish beasts recall both Hieronymus Bosch and the English tradition of drolleries and gargoyles, while the flowing mass of lines seems to tremble with blood-curdling screams.
Even before the decline of the luxury book market in the shadow of the World War I, Heath Robinson realized the potential of the magazine industry to raise his profile and provide economic stability. By adapting the lesson he had learned from illustrating classics, his cartoons gently poked fun at modern society and contemporary fashions, and provided light relief from the misery of war. How to Live in a Flat (1936), for instance, sends up the new trends in 1930s furniture and living arrangements. His cartoon for a 'one-piece chromium steel dining suite' looks like a Bauhaus design, apart from the portly group of suburban diners who stare disapprovingly at the all-in-one table and chairs.
The penultimate room shows Heath Robinson 'off duty', with his watercolours of scenery and his family. His fondness for landscape is evident throughout his graphic work, although it is in his studies of trees, seascapes and the countryside that the artist relaxes. Here he exchanges printing deadlines, drawing desks and confident pen lines for lazy afternoons, walks in the park and Impressionistic blobs of colour.