16 JANUARY 1948, Page 24

Heath Robinson

The Life and Art of W. Heath Robinson. By Langston Day. (Herbert Joseph. 25s.) OF the many gifted and popular comic artists who have flourished in this country in the last fifty years, none achieved so widespread a fame as Heath Robinson. This personal triumph constitutes a remarkable phenomenon, for although he was a gifted illustrator, Heath Robinson was not essentially a comic draughtsman and possessed only one joke. Artistically he belonged to that school of illustrators of elaborate editions of familiar fairy-tales which attained its greatest success in the early years of the present century, and represents perhaps the last manifestation of the narrative romanticism initiated by the Pre-Raphaelites. Indeed, for the casual reader it is frequently difficult to distinguish his youthful work from that of Rackham and Dulac; all three exhibited during their early careers something of the infiu ence of Beardsley and Walter Crane ; though in Heath Robinson's case this was probably less profound than that of that neglected genius, Sime.

In the later works on which his fame principally rests Heath Robinson repeatedly succeeded in the remarkable feat of producing a genuinely humorous drawing although totally lacking all the technical equipment of a humorous artist. His painstaking and careful method of work ruled out any possibility of his developing the brilliant, quick-fire, comic calligraphy of a Lear, a Busch, or a Sennep, although in one or two of the unfinished sketches at the end of this volume there are indications that this talent was latent rather than absent. Moreover he was completely devoid of any sense of character. He had one type and one type only—a benevolent, elderly gentleman of ample proportions who is made to serve as scientist, poet or policeman as the occasion demands. And yet his popularity was not unjustified and his position in the history of comic art secure. His drawings are genuinely funny drawings, as those of Keene, masterpieces of realistic draughtsmanship with an allegedly comic and doubtfully relevant anecdote underneath, nor any more than are the charming fantasies of no particular humorous signifi- cance of the school of E. M. Shephard.

Heath Robinson's unique distinction is due not so much, as Mr. Langston Day and various eminent authorities quoted in the present volume allege, to the fact that his art crystallised a wide- spread reaction to the domination of the machine, but that while satirising those ponipous and elaborate treatises of popular science and mechanics, which enjoyed their initial popularity during his early years, they at the same time exploited with equal success our human weakness for " wanting to see the wheels go round," regard- less of the purpose for which the whole complicated mechanism exists. Indeed it may well be possible that the full beauty of these jokes could only be appreciated by a generation accustomed to stare weekly, goggle-eyed, at those incredibly detailed double page spreads of a cross-section of Graf Zeppelin's new airship, or the interior of the engine-room of the Mauritania, so painstakingly produced by the Illustrated London News. However, it would seem likely that even if this full contemporary flavour can never in future be wholly recaptured, Heath Robinson's profile will be forever stamped on the reverse of the medal bearing the likeness of the author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.