Geoffrey Beare in the Heath Robinson Museum permanent exhibition • pic: Tom Fish

An Adventure We Never Regretted

11th November 2016

An Adventure We Never Regretted

a beautifully conceived, and brilliantly executed building, the new Heath Robinson Museum is the first purpose-built museum in Greater London for over 40 years. It’s the sort of undertaking that validates the existence of the Heritage Lottery Fund, from where a good proportion – some £1.3million – of the construction and development costs have come. It’s a tribute, too, to immense hard work, determination and vision on the part of the Trustees and Management Board, and countless volunteer fund-raisers.

The first seed was sown around twenty years ago. West House, once a substantial mansion inhabited by Nelson’s grandson, and one of very few historic properties in the area still standing in its own grounds, had been bought by public subscription after World War Two, and gifted to the council to house Pinner’s Book of Remembrance – but by the 1990s the building had fallen into disrepair, and its future prospects looked grim. To have any chance of survival it needed someone to love it…

… and the Heath Robinson Trust, established in 1992 to conserve a collection of the artist’s works made by his daughter, who had recently died, needed a home. It was a marriage made in heaven. William Heath Robinson – illustrator, painter, cartoonist and social historian – had lived in Pinner at a critical point in his artistic career. Why not establish a permanent memorial to him here?

Serious fund-raising began in 2000 – and only ten years (and an impressive £1.4million) later, the restored West House opened its doors once more. Along with function rooms, a small bookshop and a café, it housed a gallery in which the Trust could show, in rotation, the 500 or so pictures that it then owned (the collection has now doubled, with the aid of grants from the
National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund in 2015). Most people would have called it a day – but the Heath Robinson Trust team had the bit between their teeth by then. The gallery was modest; they wanted something more commodious. Theirs is the only substantial collection of the artist’s work in public ownership, and, along with his original output, it contains an archive of letters, special editions of the books he illustrated, proof prints, advertising booklets and ephemera. It deserved a dedicated home.

And now it has it, and very beguiling it is. The new wing, lightly connected to West House, overlooking the lake, has surprisingly tall rooms that create a great sense of space, while the ceiling, with its interlocking planks and visible air conditioning ducts – the sight of structure doing its job, according to architect Adam Zombory-Moldovan – offers a neat reference to the clever contraptions imagined by the man himself. It’s a gallery with considerable personality.

William Heath Robinson thought it ‘greatly daring’ when, in 1908 at the age of 36, he moved with his wife and young family to Pinner in what was then still rural Middlesex. They remained here, in Moss Lane, for ten very productive years.

WHR was already an established artist, who had studied at Islington Art School and the Royal Academy. His real love was landscape, but he was pursuing a career as a book illustrator, like his older brothers, in order to pay the bills. His work was thoughtful and detailed, and commissions came regularly, but in 1904 a publisher for whom he had produced over 200 drawings for an extravagant edition of the complete works of Rabelais went bankrupt. WHR received the merest fraction of what he was owed.

In desperate need of income (by then he had a baby daughter, later followed by four sons) he turned to weekly magazines such as The Tatler and The Sketch, known to pay well and quickly for comic drawings. He was not, it appears, a natural. One editor is reported to have observed, ‘If this work is humorous, your serious work must be very serious indeed’. But WHR was as determined as he was clever, and in 1906 a series of cartoons called The Gentle Art Of Catching Things brought popularity, recognition – and money.

In his Pinner years he managed to work both as a serious illustrator and a comic artist, producing what WHR expert Geoffrey Beare, who has curated both the permanent and current temporary (‘Heath Robinson at War’) exhibitions describes as “his best work in both fields”. He contributed to editions of Shakespeare’s plays and Kipling’s poems, to books of fairy tales by
Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen, and to Bill The Minder, a children’s story that he wrote as well as illustrated.

By the end of the war, paper was in short supply, and the market for sumptuous gift books had all but vanished. His satirical wartime cartoons, poking fun at the enemy, had been very popular, however, and his quirky brand of humour was much in demand throughout the 1920s and 30s. He expanded into advertising, with his work used in campaigns for everything from toffees to adding machines and asbestos roofing. He even designed the cocktail bar of luxury liner The Empress of Britain.

By the time he died, in 1944, it was as ‘the Gadget King’ that he was best known, as a result of his drawings of remarkable – and often absurd – devices to solve all sorts of ludicrous domestic and industrial conundrums: testing artificial teeth in a modern tooth works, for example, and removing a wart from the top of the head. Although his name is still associated with fantastical, ramshackle apparatus, Beare explains that it wasn’t, in fact, the mechanisms that interested him. WHR was a people person. He saw the over-complicated machinery as a metaphor for bureaucracy, for the inflated structures by which people justify their own existence. Mad as they are, though, these works have a marvellous level of detail and character that add credibility to even the most ridiculous ideas.

Beare describes them as being about the human condition, about the weakness and self-importance of man. “If Heath Robinson were alive now,” he adds, “I imagine he might have turned his attention to HR departments.”

Accomplished and prolific as he was in so many artistic genres, it’s rather sad that we still know him only as ‘the Gadget King’. There’s clearly so much more to him than such as reductive nickname implies. This new museum – a significant addition to the national arts, educational and cultural landscape – sets the record straight at last, and the Trust sums it up beautifully: ‘The Heath Robinson Museum is for students of illustration, lovers of landscape paintings, advertising enthusiasts and academics, dads building contraptions in sheds, believers in fairies, children with time to dream, couples stuck in tiny flats, people who put holes in cheese, artificial teeth testers and anyone who’s ever held something together with a bit of string…’

Heath Robinson called his time in Pinner ‘an adventure we never regretted’. I hope the Trust feel the same way about their marvellous achievement.

The Heath Robinson Museum is at Pinner Memorial Park, West End Lane, Pinner •
The museum is currently open 11am-4pm Fridays-Sundays; hours will shortly be extended to cover Tuesday-Sunday

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