If someone says "It's a real Heath Robinson", they are referring to a system, process, machine or device which is unnecessarily complicated and difficult to work out, usually with a very simple result. The term comes from W. Heath Robinson (the W is for William), an English illustrator and cartoonist who was popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, and who was best known for his elaborate drawings of intricate and bizarrely complex machinery.
Robinson was born into a family of artists in 1872. His father, grandfather and uncle all made their livings through art, via drawing or engraving. Robinson was educated at Islington Art School and the Royal Academy. He illustrated dozens of books, from famous works like Don Quixote and A Midsummer Night's Dream to lesser-known volumes such as The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm and Plantation Barn Dance. Robinson wrote some of his own books, as well, the first among them being 1902's The Adventures of Uncle Lubin.
At various points throughout his career, Robinson's illustrative styles differed tremendously, ranging from simple, spartan linework, to large areas of solid light or shadow in watercolour, to lavish and detailed full-page scenes including the swirls, curves and florals characterising the Art Nouveau movement. He would make striking use of white space in one illustration, then fill every space of the next with texture and colour.
Beyond book illustration, Robinson soon found he had a talent and an audience for cartooning. He also came to the realisation that making a living as a cartoonist, often political or satirical, was a safer bet than sticking to the landscape painting he preferred. His movement toward humourous and elaborate cartoon depictions became the work for which he is best remembered today. Publications of the era like The Sketch, The Bystander and The Tatler provided an appealing ratio of effort to income, and Robinson soon became well-known for his cartoons within their pages, as well as for his artistic and funny contributions to advertising. Often, his drawings were tongue-in-cheek lampoons of the absurdity of (then) modern life and industry, and his fame as creator of highly complicated contraptions as the means to an oversimplified end (such as an enormous, multi-part machine with hand-cranks, chutes and whistles which produced a slice of toast) stemmed from this appreciation of the ridiculous. His cartoons of this ilk were so plentiful and popular that for a time in the 1930s he was known as "The Gadget King". British codebreakers during the second World War even affectionately nicknamed one of their machines "Heath Robinson".
Robinson died in 1944 at the age of 72. While he was most famous for his cartoons and humour, he continued to practice the nature painting, watercolours and landscapes he loved so well to the end of his life.
If you'd like to learn more, we recommend the book The Art of William Heath Robinson by Geoffrey Beare.
Men That Might Have Been
by W. Heath Robinson