He was born in Finsbury Park, North London, in May, 1872. His father Thomas, an illustrator and engraver, had to illustrate the main news story each week for the Penny Illustrated Paper. It must have been from his father that Heath Robinson learned the disciplines of a commercial artist.
He trained at Islington School of Art, then at The Royal Academy Schools. His ambition was to be a landscape painter, but he had to find a more readily saleable form of art. His older brothers were already established as book illustrators and he joined them.
By 1900, when he illustrated Poe’s Poems, he was acclaimed as a ‘worthy disciple of the modern school of penmen.’ In “The Adventures of Uncle Lubin” (1902), which he wrote and illustrated, his sense of humour first came to the fore.
He went on to illustrate Shakespeare, Kipling, and more of his own books, in colour and black and white. His masterpiece was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1914) in which he set out to provide ‘a record of … the most wonderful moonlight night in fantasy’.
From 1905 Heath Robinson worked as both an illustrator and humorous artist, publishing his cartoons in popular magazines. By 1914 he was immensely popular and able to raise the morale of both troops and civilians.
He countered the pompous German propaganda and the depression engendered by the horrors of war with gentle satire and absurdity. He received a constant stream of letters from both troops at the front and the public at home thanking him for bringing a little joy into their miserable lives and suggesting subjects for his pen.
In his early drawings, he set out to satirise the pomposity, fussiness and self-importance of ‘experts’. He soon found that over-complicated machinery would serve as a metaphor for the bureaucracy and arcane processes that such people invent.
Much of Heath Robinson’s humorous work centres on the human condition, and the weakness and self-importance of man rather than the gadgets and contraptions themselves.
He was a genuinely good person – there was no bitterness in his humour, he never made racial jokes and he steered clear of politics. It is this that ensures that his work appeals to people of all ages and diverse backgrounds