Immaculate contraptions

Not many great artists are immortalised as a dictionary definition. But then William Heath Robinson, the master of the ridiculous and undisputed king of gadgets, was no ordinary draughtsman, as a new exhibition makes clear
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In the history of British illustration, William Heath Robinson is a kind of Tudor monarch, a figure who stands out for being well-known, uncommonly gifted and fantastically English. His work in the fairy-tale territory of Hans Christian Andersen, Don Quixote and the Arabian Nights - so ornate yet so boldly dramatic - puts him right up there with Rackham, and Dulac, Tenniel and Cruickshank. A gob-smacked critic in The Illustrated London News pronounced his Midsummer Night's Dream "the most complete and beautiful specimen before us of an illustrated book as a single work of art". His openness to foreign influence can be seen in the starkly Japanese monochrome landscapes that lie behind his aquatic English cherubs in The Water Babies. He took fin-de-siècle erotica in his stride, and Art Nouveau and Futurism, and incorporated them all into his pictures. The grotesque figures he conjured when illustrating the works of Rabelais, with their mad donkey ears and corkscrew tongues, reveal him as the essential forerunner of Mervyn Peake.

His 45-year career seemed to follow an unbroken upward path, as he glided without apparent effort from one genre or discipline to another: book illustration, magazine comic art, advertisements, watercolours, bleak landscapes of the English coastline. He even accepted a commission to provide decorative panels for the cocktail bar of a transatlantic liner, The Empress of Britain. He could do moody Pre-Raphaelism and comic absurdity, Yellow Book decadence and mad-inventor surrealism. He is the link - probably the only link - between Aubrey Beardsley and Wallace and Gromit.

And yet... Where is all this hectic achievement, this eclectic accomplishment, on display today? Hardly anywhere. There are just four of his works in the British Museum, five in the Victoria & Albert and one in the National Portrait Gallery. A more crucial question to ask is, where does his reputation rest? And the answer, sadly, is "in the gadgets". Because, of course, Heath Robinson is, like his friend HM Bateman, a household name and a dictionary entry. Here's the definition: "Heath Robinson. Adj. Used to describe an over-ingenious, ridiculously complicated or elaborate mechanical contrivance." Although they represent a tiny iceberg-tip of his vast and eclectic output in a dozen fields, Heath Robinson is stuck with the reputation as "The Gadget King", for the series of unfeasibly nonsensical contraptions he drew between 1916 and his death in 1944. What is it about them that so caught the public imagination that, 60 years after his death, they're all we know of him?

It's the pulleys that do it. The pulleys and the little knots in the long expanses of hairy string that are trained around the pulleys and keep the structures together. Heath Robinson's contraptions - the artistic signatures for which he is best known - are masterpieces of simple-mindedness and frailty. Threadbare, tottering, flying on a wing and a prayer, they are the last word in DIY hopelessness. They represent something about the English spirit, trying to keep up with the modern world while being stuck firmly pre-Industrial Revolution, trying to construct a particle accelerator out of some paper clips and a roll of Sellotape.

Not that the gadgets' actual function is necessarily noble. In Heath Robinson's world, heroic feats of basic engineering are employed for absurdly tiny purposes. Take Testing artificial teeth in a modern tooth works (1938). Against a background of smoke-churning industrial foundries, we're shown a fantastic machine, built (rather shakily) from wood and scrap metal. The machine is tensed, via the knotted hairy string, pulleys and cannonballs, to let fall a weighted pole that ends in a single tooth, thus plunging the tooth into a cooked chicken that sits on a china plate beneath it. While you register what a ludicrous amount of energy is being spent to establish whether you can eat chicken with false teeth, you start to register other details: the scientists and ministry people, with their Shavian beards, their monocles and disputatious mien, earnestly inspecting what became of earlier tooth-chicken experiments, like soothsayers examining entrails; the man with the shears, waiting for a signal to slice through the rope, the butler-like figure carrying a trayload of teeth down to the arched warehouse where earnest artisans are working on more metal plungers...

There is so much going on here. It's a satire on a dozen things simultaneously: on modern technology, on scientific research, on British self-importance, on human pretension and waste, on overmanning (does it need two men to keep the wheels oiled?) and to society's capacity to miss the point. But it's a satire that is wholly benign and utterly English, a satire that (you could say) lacks teeth. The figures are men of idiotic seriousness, but they're portrayed with pathos rather than hatred, like the scientists trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers in Gulliver's Travels. The only sign we get that anything's wrong is the detail of the maintenance man climbing the ladder with his oil-can, his face turned towards the viewer as if asking, "Why am I caught up in this nonsensical exercise?" - like a banker immured in the Wall Street Crash of that year, or a soldier heading for war a decade later.

Looking at a new exhibition of Heath Robinson's works at London's Dulwich Picture Gallery, you're struck by how many of his hilarious pictures are not about pulleys and string. And you realise that his satires are covert celebrations of the essential kindness of the human heart. None more so than a picture from the Sunday Graphic in 1928, entitled How to take advantage of the Savoy Orpheans dance music broadcast by the BBC without disturbing your neighbour in the flat below. To ensure the downstairs sleeper slumbers on, the dancers in the picture are fox-trotting on a floor soundproofed with a mattress, their feet are shod with cushions, and they're listening to wireless music on headphones. It's a gorgeous image, this contrast between the solitary sleeper and the frenzied Bacchanalians who are going to ridiculous lengths to stay silent; but the main effect is of the sweet obligingness of people, or British people, or perhaps just the BBC audience of Savoy Orpheans fans. It's also a key image in the WHR canon, because it's not original. As the exhibition shows, Heath Robinson got the idea for the picture from an anonymous Punch artist in 1850 who drew "The Advantage of Lodging Under a Mechanical Genius", showing a man having his bed-clothes pulled off by means of a weighted string and a system of pulleys - the first-ever Heath Robinson "gadget", 22 years before he was born. But we can perhaps forgive him a little plagiarism, when he turned it to such good effect.

He was born in 1872 into a family with a long pictorial tradition. His grandfather was a Newcastle bookbinder who worked for Thomas Bewick. His father was a watchmaker-turned-engraver and illustrator on The Penny Illustrated Paper. William and his brothers Charles and Tom used to watch their father at his drawing-board every Sunday, and all three followed him into the craft. William's first commissions were mostly in the area signposted Insufferably Twee - doing Bo Peep and the Fairy Pedlar for Little Folks and Golden Sunbeams magazines. But when he was offered Don Quixote to illustrate, he seized his chance.

From the start, he was quirky and cinematic, locating central figures at the extreme edges of the frame, moving up close on the action, suggesting impossible depths of field. As he picked up more challenging work - Edgar Allen Poe's poems, Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare - a revolution was under way in picture-book land. Where once you had to use wood engraving to reproduce your illustrations, you could now draw a picture straight on to paper or board and see it faithfully reproduced. Heath Robinson embraced the modern method with alacrity. But despite a flood of commissions (for the works of Rabelais and Perrault, Baron Munchausen, Kipling's Song of the English) he was scratching a rebellious itch. "I was never an illustrator in the real sense of the word," he wrote later. "I was too independent and I wanted to go my own way too much." His way lay into humour that was surreal with a touch of the macabre. You could see it in his first alter ego, Uncle Lubin - an unsettling, lugubrious, sexually ambiguous figure in an enormously tall bonnet, a belted coat and stripey stockings, who travels by hot-air balloon and nurses a baby who is stolen by a giant pelican...

His first funny sketches were published in 1906 in The Sketch magazine. They were part of a series called The Gentle Art of Catching Things, and featured typically energetic Heath Robinson types Trapping Whelks on the Shores of the Caspian Sea. Heaven knows where these figures, or the simple cartoon-figure idiom, came from. They sat very oddly alongside the line-up of evil caliphs and bloated Gargantuas that had filled his imagination until then, but in the next eight years he produced 200 humorous sketches for a variety of magazines. The great breakthrough came in December 1908, with a series in The Sketch called Great British Industries - Duly Protected. The drawing was called "Kippering Herrings" and displayed a machine made of pulleys, string and candles. By the fourth of the series, "In the Pea-Splitting Sheds of a Soup Factory", weights appeared for the first time: the Heath Robinson contraption was born.

As the popularity of fully-illustrated children's gift books dwindled, Heath Robinson discovered that humour was what the market required and the public craved. They were by no means all about machines with pulleys. One of my favourites is titled Daring abduction of a society beauty at Westgate-on-Sea (1912) and shows a desperate customer cycling, handlebars clenched in teeth, across the Westgate sands, holding the wheels of a huge bathing-machine inside which the "society beauty" has been imprisoned with rope.

War tended to bring out the best in Heath Robinson. The combination of Army bureaucracy and civilian make-do-and-mend offered a thousand possibilities for his surreal sense of humour to get to work on. In the First World War, he drew a brigade of fat, masked Huns advancing upon the British front line with little wheeled canisters linked to a giant gasometer, spraying the hapless Tommys with laughing gas. Dozens of drawings showed sneaky German invasion tactics, or depicted wily Royal Engineers tunnelling under the enemy's trenches to steal their beer. This gentle, ribbing, Dad's Army-style humour may strike us as whimsical today, but it went down a storm with the military. Letters poured in from servicemen suggesting newly patented inventions, or asking him to draw them a device for extracting a pranged lorry from a shell-hole. By the Second World War (which he thought "disastrous"), he'd stopped drawing figures of the enemy; the Nazis were no laughing matter. Instead, he drew crackpot fantasies from the home front, showing civilians coping with privations and the threat of Kraut fifth columnists.

No vivid picture of Heath Robinson's personality emerges from the available documents and catalogue entries. He was a shy, rather inoffensive man who lived for his wife and three children, at their snug homes in Middlesex and Surrey. His own self-portrait shows a rumpled, scholarly, moth-eaten cove with a pipe, slippers and a nuzzling cat - a far cry from the exotic figures, sultans and Bluebeards whose cruel command he evoked so well. You feel that he liked looking at the world of power and organisation and pomposity, and expanding it to absurd proportions until it exploded. Deflating by inflating was his unique trick. But what he liked best was celebrating the Englishman's belief that the world will work properly if everyone follows some basic rules and does what they're told. And, for all his expertise at bringing to yelping life every book character from Bo Peep to Pantagruel, it's his fondness for his countrymen's hopeless optimism that the British public decided they liked best, too.

Heath Robinson, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 to 18 January