by Margaretta S. Frederick
Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite Collection, Delaware Art Museum
Although beloved in his native country of England, William Heath Robinson is little known in the world beyond. Not for much longer: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”—the winds of change are blustery! In October 2016 the Heath Robinson Museum opened in Pinner, in northwest London, and in March, Wonder and Whimsy: the Illustrations of W. Heath Robinson opened at the Delaware Art Museum, bringing the work of this artist to American audiences for the first time.
Born in 1872 in London, into a family of illustrators, Heath Robinson’s working life spanned an interesting moment in the history of illustration, accommodating significant changes in print technology, aesthetic preference, and the field of illustration. Yet he survived economically and flourished in the public eye, largely due to his embrace of a broader range of visual work. This included traditional book and magazine illustration; the writing and illustration of his own children’s stories; an extensive body of work in commercial advertising; and a secondary career as an illustrator of humorous imagery. It is for his later comic illustrations, many of them featuring complex contraptions which performed simple tasks, that he is best remembered. He has been described as the “British Rube Goldberg.”
The Delaware exhibition includes a selection of original drawings from two editions of Shakespeare’s plays, Twelfth Night1 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.2 Unsurprisingly, examples of both of these “gift book” editions are included in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection. When Heath Robinson began his professional career as an illustrator in the late 1890s, England was still enjoying a golden age of illustration. The “gift book” developed in response to a combination of social and economic shifts including a growing middle class with the wealth and leisure time to buy and enjoy them. These frequently-folio-sized, limited editions of books by well-known authors —of whom Shakespeare was particularly popular—featured sumptuous illustrations and decorated bindings. Developments in print technology, such as the introduction of color reproductions and more efficient modes of production, also contributed to the emergence of these deluxe publications. They were generally released during the holiday season to gain the most possible sales.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was Heath Robinson’s first gift book project to benefit from new three-color printing processes. At this time in the development of color technology, plates were “tipped in,” or printed separately and glued onto the page, rather than embedded directly on the same paper as the text. Heath Robinson decried the “scrapbook” nature of this method, but admitted that the results were “handsome.” Twelfth Night was published just before Christmas and included 40 color plates, among them, an illustration from Duke Orsino’s famous opening soliloquy. In a wonderful trick of draftsmanship, Heath Robinson portrays the Duke pacing in the castle courtyard as a swirling cloud of specter-like spirits encircles him. The viewer hardly needs the text to understand that love has bewitched Orsino. In undertaking this project, Heath Robinson set about to capture the atmosphere of the play rather than to create a literal record of the narrative. In an illustration of Olivia’s parting from Viola (still in disguise as Cesario), the artist set the viewpoint from above—like a spotlight highlighting the moment of drama. The viewer peers through an opening in a tree-filled garden, which recreates a sense of an actual stage set. Heath Robinson wrote of this project, “The work was a joy to me from beginning to end.” 3
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, commissioned and completed six years later, shows the artist’s fully developed style. The 32 full-page black-and-white illustrations have a tapestry-like density of patterning that enhances the woodland setting of Shakespeare’s comedy of magic and misalliance. Published on the eve of World War I, it signaled the end of the era of the gift book, as well as the crowning achievement of Heath Robinson’s career. Once again, a stage is set on which Theseus expresses his impatience and anticipation of his forthcoming nuptials. He stands with Hippolyta at the top of a stair in a starkly delineated classical architectural setting, looking out into a vast void of—well, empty space. In a daring compositional move, Heath Robinson chose to leave almost half of the pictorial space blank—a clever use of negative space that enhances the tension and dramatic intensity of the moment. The tactic is employed again in the illustration in which Puck leads Demetrius through the enchanted wood. The forest is rendered with pre-Raphaelite detail, in which seemingly recognizable plant forms are delineated in a mosaic-like patterning that verges on the abstract. The ornamentation below is juxtaposed with the chasm of black sky above, in which Puck hovers in consternation. It is a tour de force of draftsmanship, a skill at which Heath Robinson excelled. His technical control of the line—which ranged from the highly detailed decorative work in this drawing to deceivingly simple outlines—was integral to his ability to convey nuances of drama and character that are necessary in relating a narrative.
The Folger also holds a rare 1901 edition of Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb,4 an early work in which Heath Robinson was still very much under the influence of the more traditional style of his brothers, Thomas and Charles. Still, kernels of the artist’s mature style can be found in an illustration from Midsummer, in the beautifully drawn ass’s head and the faithfully articulated foliage surrounding it. Taken together, these three books demonstrate the evolution of one of the early 20th-century’s most talented illustrators.
Visit Wonder and Whimsy: the Illustrations of W. Heath Robinson at the Delaware Art Museum through May 21, 2017. All of the illustrations in the exhibition are lent, courtesy of the William Heath Robinson Trust.