William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) is best known for his crazy inventions configured in immensely elaborate and comic illustrations. Perhaps less well known is his output of advertising work, something he never actually intended for himself. Necessity is the mother of invention, however, and Robinson’s lucrative work for brands such as Shredded Wheat, Great Western Trains and Johnnie Walker is among his best, and its influence continues to be seen in commercial creativity today.
Geoffrey Beare, curator of the upcoming Heath Robinson Museum, which is set to open next year, explains that Robinson was a fine artist trained at the Royal Academy Schools. His ambition was to become a landscape painter but when he graduated in 1895 he soon realized that he was not going to be able to earn a living that way, so he turned to book illustration.
He was soon considered one of the leading black and white artists of the day, Beare says. In 1902 Grant Richards published a children’s book that Robinson had both written and illustrated called The Adventures of Uncle Lubin. A subsequent, more ambitious, commission from Grant Richards ended in dismay when the publisher went bankrupt during its production, leaving Robinson unpaid for huge amounts of work. Now with a young family to support, he turned to comic illustration for upmarket magazines and advertising work.
Beare says, “An American advertising agent working for the London firm of Lamson Paragon saw The Adventures of Uncle Lubin and decided that Heath Robinson was the man to illustrate a series of advertisements that he had written. Between 1903 and 1909, over a hundred advertisements with Robinson’s drawings appeared in various trade papers.
“In 1915 he was commissioned to make a series of six drawings showing the stages in the making of Johnnie Walker whisky, and the following year to make a series of 12 drawings showing the virtues of Chairman Tobacco. By the time the war [WWI] ended the market for serious book illustrations had all but collapsed, but the demand for his humorous work had expanded, especially for advertising.”
Bear says Robinson’s approach to advertising work used his unique style of humor to show the qualities of the product or to demonstrate the lengths to which the manufacturer was willing to go to ensure that his product was superior to those of his competitors. “He was much in demand to parody the processes by which various products,” says Beare. “These drawings, which were uniquely his, range from the manufacture of biscuits to asbestos cement roofs, from whisky to paper. In other campaigns he sought to demonstrate the desirable qualities of the product. Perhaps the most appealing projects are those where he contrasts the happy state of a customer with the product against the abject state of one without it.”
Advertising work was better paying than book or magazine illustration, so Robinson was able to spend more time on these projects. Commercial work also often had higher production qualities and, Beare says, this means the advertising work often sees Robinson at his most inventive. “With ever more complex contraptions operated by armies of absurd little men all taking their roles very seriously, we also see the familiar advertiser’s message that ‘this product will improve your life’ satirized so gently and charmingly that we go away believing that we really should try the product,” says Beare.
Heath Robinson continues to influence those in the creative industries today. Beare cites Aardman Animations, the makers of Wallace and Gromit, as an example. In this film Aardman co-founder, Peter Lord, discusses how “incredibly inspirational” the artist has been to them. In advertising, we need look no further than Honda’s multi-award winning 2004 spot “Cog” by Wieden+ Kennedy London to see a direct descendent.
Heath Robinson’s work is currently being celebrated in an exhibition at McCann London, in the ad agency’s apt 1930s art deco building, where some of his quirky inventions have been constructed. The agency even has its own rather fittingly convoluted link with the artist, in that the building was originally a show room for Daimler, one of Robinson’s clients.