The relationship between Pinner and William Heath Robinson – the man they used to call the Gadget King – goes back to his residency in the village in the early years of the twentieth century. Now, with the restoration of West House (beautifully brought back to life after years of neglect and decay), the William Heath Robinson Trust has a fitting permanent home, and is currently hosting, in conjunction with the Chris Beetles Gallery, a beguiling exhibition – Machines & Inventions – that reveals WHR’s creative genius.
Jill Glenn went along…
Many were the memorials created to the fallen in the years after the second World War, and Pinner’s West House was – or could have been – one of the finest. It was bought by public subscription, and gifted to the council to house PInner’s Book of Remembrance and to be a ‘living monument’ to the dead. Despite its rich history (having once been a substantial mansion and home to Nelson’s grandson, the child of his illegitimate daughter by Lady Emma Hamilton) and the evident desire of the local community to see it put to good use, its condition deteriorated. The Book of Remembrance was removed for safe keeping; the lights were switched off, the windows boarded up.
By the 1990s the future of the building looked very grim indeed. Then came a lightbulb moment, one that WHR himself might have appreciated. West House needed a purpose; the Heath Robinson Trust needed a home… Fund-raising began in earnest in 2000 and, an astonishing £1,400,000 and only ten years later, West House opened its doors once more last summer. Judith Elliot, a Trustee of the Friends of West House, remarks that they are “rather proud of themselves”. And rightly so. The Book of Remembrance has returned home, and there is now a Gallery in which the Trust will show, in rotation, the 500 or so WHR pictures that it owns. There are function rooms for hire, plus a small bookshop with a WHR theme, and a delightful café called Daisy’s In The Park that brings a welcome buzz to the whole place. It’s a marvellous achievement… and it doesn’t stop here. Their next target – “another two million or so”, says Judith airily – is to build on a new wing that will allow more of the collection to be shown.
Heath Robinson might not instantly recognise it now, but he would have known West House in its earlier, more glorious, days, when he and his wife came to live in Pinner in 1908, in a move he described as “greatly daring”. He remained in the parish, settling eventually in Moss Lane, for ten very productive years.
He was 36 when he arrived, and already an established artist, pursuing a career as a book illustrator like his older brothers, after time studying at Islington Art School and the Royal Academy. His passion was for landscape, but, ever the pragmatist, he soon realised that this would not pay the bills. Commissions for his beautiful and detailed illustrations came regularly, and by 1903 he felt sufficiently secure to marry. A daughter, to be followed by four sons, was born in 1904. Just as the family were most in need of money, a publisher who had commissioned a large quantity of drawings went bankrupt. In despair he turned to weekly magazines such as The Tatler and The Sketch, known to pay well and quickly for large, highly-finished comic drawings. He was not, it appears, a natural. One editor is reported as having said “If this work is humorous, your serious work must be very serious indeed”. WHR was a determined man, however, and soon a series of cartoons called ‘The Gentle Art Of Catching Things’ brought acclaim and popularity.
While living in Pinner he managed to work both as a comic artist and a serious illustrator, producing what WHR expert Geoffrey Beare 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 fantastical children’s story that he wrote as well as illustrated.
By the end of the war, with paper in short supply, the market for sumptuous gift books was almost non-existent. WHR was fortunate that his wartime cartoons had been popular, and his quirky brand of humour remained in demand throughout the 1920s and 30s. His drawings were used frequently in advertising campaigns too, but by the time he died, in 1944, it was as the Gadget King that he was best known.
The current exhibition at West House is hosted by the Chris Beetles Gallery, and is a major selling show of some of WHR’s original artwork. Machines & Inventions celebrates one of the best-known aspects of his work – his remarkable devices to solve all sorts of domestic and industrial conundrums. As ludicrous as they are, these sketches and watercolours are also a legitimate response to the technological progress of the early twentieth century, in both peace and war. They have a level of detail and character that bring them to life in a very sweet, ridiculously believable way.
Despite being accomplished in so many artistic genres, William Heath Robinson’s name remains synonymous with weird technical contraptions, intricate and clever and silly all at once…
Machines & Inventions continues at West House, West End Lane, Pinner, until 17 April.
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