Book Review: Heath Robinson's Commercial Art : A Compendium of His Advertising Work

I've always loved Heath Robinson's cartoons - those ridiculously complex machinery with their elaborate pulley systems, belching steam boilers, pipes and levers.  I am not alone. The satirical artist has a special place in the British consciousness. Indeed his name was included in the dictionary in 1912 as a synonym for ingenious and absurd machinery and is still regularly used today. So I am delighted that a museum has been created focusing on Heath Robinson's life and work in my hometown of London.

'Your absurd, beautiful drawings... give me a peculiar pleasure of the mind like nothing else in the world.' - H.G. Wells in a letter to Heath Robinson in 1914

Heath Robinson's Commercial Art: A Compendium of his Advertising Work accompanies an exhibition at the new Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, Middlesex which is on display until 18 February 2018.  The book shines a light on the satirical artist's commercial work for companies including Hovis bread and Johnnie Walker whisky and is a fascinating and rewarding read. The hardcover has some 286 illustrations and was one of the Independent's art books of 2017 which described it as 'a tribute worthy of [Heath Robinson's] talents'. 

Heath Robinson Commercial Art book

Heath Robinson's gentle humour, ingenuity and graphic flair has influenced many artists and filmmakers including Aardman Animations and Monty Python. Many of Aardman's contraptions are indeed pure Heath Robinson. For example, the Wallace-Gromit household borrows heavily from a full-scale model of a contraption-filled house entitled "The Gadget Family", designed and built for the Ideal Home Show in 1934. In the foreword of the book, Peter Lord, Founder of Aardman Animations describes the influence that Heath Robinson has had over his work with drawings that are 'jokes to be read in time and space, the eye tracking around from one detail to another.'  

One aspect of Heath Robinson's work that has received little attention until now is his commercial art. During the early 20th Century, companies started to use humorous artists, such as Heath Robinson, to advertise their products. Heath Robinson worked for some 100 companies, advertising products as diverse as asbestos, bread, bespoke tailoring and cigarettes. Much of his commercial work was published in trade journals and didn't reach a wide audience. Thanks to the meticulous research of the author, Geoffrey Beare, we can now enjoy these marvellous and little-known works.  

Like many creatives working today, Heath Robinson had mixed views about producing commercial art for clients.  While it provided him with a substantial income and allowed him to present his work in much finer reproduction than magazines could offer, he found it difficult taking client instruction. As author, Beare writes, 'it is clear from surviving correspondence that he found it tedious working for companies with a top-heavy management structure whose managers or directors all had to put in their two penn’orth of comment on his designs, leading to repeated requests for changes'

Despite the micro-management of his clients and the artist's frustrations, Heath Robinson managed to create wonderful comic and ingenious drawings for his commercial clients. In November 1915, the artist received a letter from a young lieutenant with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in the Dardanelles who had spotted one of Heath Robinson's adverts for Chairman's tobacco in his copy of Punch magazine. The lieutenant wrote: 'It is the best thing in Punch and one of the most priceless of your priceless drawings.'

Like the young lieutenant in the Dardanelles, we enjoyed the sheer ingenuity and creative force of Heath Robinson's commercial work and found it the perfect antidote to the leaden January skies. At a time when the advertising world seems to have lost its sense of humour, his adverts serve as a reminder of the effectiveness of gentle humour for expressing the warmth and humanity of brands. We very much hope that this handsome collection of Heath Robinson's commercial art ends up in the libraries of advertising agencies across the land as a source of inspiration and delight.