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Robinson, W Heath

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Artist, Author.

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(1872-1944) UK artist, illustrator and author, brother of the book illustrator Charles Robinson (1870-1937). From 1897 he produced many finely composed, meticulously inked drawings and decorations for illustrated editions of fantasy by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616), Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), Edgar Allan Poe, François Rabelais, Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), William Shakespeare and others; this wholly serious work showed the influence of both Japanese woodblock engravings and the Art Nouveau movement. Robinson also illustrated his own whimsically humorous children's fantasies, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902) and Bill the Minder (1912). The drawings for Uncle Lubin's Baron Munchhausen-like exploits (see Rudolf Erich Raspe) in particular display a fondness for cluttered masses of ramshackle paraphernalia, some of them foreshadowing the ridiculously overelaborate gadgets and mechanical Inventions – including some Automata, and many automata-like contraptions usually held together with knotted string and pedalled by their operators – that Parody the excesses of the First Industrial Age and became the trademark of Robinson's cartoon Humour – although, as indicated above, his range was in fact rather wider.

Even World War One became comic in Robinson's early collections Some "Frightful" War Pictures (graph coll 1915), the Lancing Wheel (image XV) being close to a genuine imaginary automaton, Hunlikely! (graph coll 1916) and Flypapers (graph coll 1919), with ever-sillier secret Weapons echoing Albert Robida's visions of Future War – such as gigantic vacuum cleaners to suck German troops out of dugouts, while support services include mechanized belts of hot-water-bottles to warm kilted Highlanders' exposed flesh in a characteristic Parody of the assembly-line process. Robinson contributed futuristic cartoons to the 1919 Pears' Annual which imagined the world of 1969, and was the perfect illustrator for The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (1933) by Norman Hunter, with its benignly comic Mad Scientist. Absurdities: A Book of Collected Drawings (graph coll 1934) is his own large selection of his humorous artwork; Railway Ribaldry: Being 96 Pages of Railway Humour (graph coll 1935) focuses on railway Transportation; the posthumous Inventions (graph coll 1973) assembles "gadget" drawings from World War One to the end of the artist's life; his lesser-known Advertising work is showcased in Heath Robinson Advertising (graph coll 1992). A twenty-first century compendium, reproducing material from all phases of his career – often in colour – is Contraptions (graph coll 2007). For older readers at least, the phrase "a Heath Robinson contraption" is still part of the language; he occupies the same conceptual niche in British popular culture as Rube Goldberg in America. [DRL]

William Heath Robinson

born London: 31 May 1872

died London: 13 September 1944

works (selected)

graphic collections

with K R G Browne

with H Cecil Hunt


  • My Line of Life (Glasgow, Scotland: Blackie and Son, 1938) [nonfiction: autobiography: illus/hb/W Heath Robinson]

further reading


previous versions of this entry

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