Unearthed: Heath Robinson's cure for noise pollution

With antiquated headphones clamped to their ears, the partygoers dance round the wheel that powers their wireless set. On their prancing feet they wear sponges instead of shoes, while the floor of the room is padded to stop them disturbing the neighbours.

The comical scene of silent yet lively revelry can only have come from the mind of William Heath Robinson, the celebrated illustrator whose bizarre contraptions earned him a place in the English dictionary.

It is one of dozens of drawings by the "Gadget King" displayed for the first time ever in a touring retrospective of his work opening at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

Almost 60 years after his death, Heath Robinson's name remains synonymous with wacky cartoon images of bespectacled men using everything from steam kettles to unwieldy pulleys to run nonsensical machines.

Of these drawings, none is more typical than the newly discovered pastiche of a picture by the caricaturist George Cruickshank, where Robinson has a man struggling to sleep as his upstairs neighbours party. Entitled How to Take Advantage of the Savoy Orpheans Dance Music Broadcast by the BBC Without Disturbing Your Neighbour in the Flat Below, the picture shows revellers going to extraordinary lengths to allow sleep.

Yet Heath Robinson's talents were far more varied than this. For decades he was ranked alongside Arthur Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley among Britain's foremost literary illustrators.

Showing this side, the new exhibition has a selection of more than 20 recently unearthed illustrations from a Complete Works of Shakespeare commissioned by the publisher Jonathan Cape more than 70 years ago but never printed. Among the highlights are gruesome images illustrating the Bard's history plays, including one of a slain Richard III and another of devilish assassins fleeing after murdering the princes in the tower.

The collection also features exuberant comic images of more light-hearted characters, such as Falstaff.

The Shakespeare pictures are on loan only for the exhibition. The bulk of the work is owned by the William Heath Robinson Trust, which hopes to raise £3.5m to create an archive dedicated to the "Gadget King" in Pinner, Middlesex, where Heath Robinson lived during one of his most prolific periods, the years after the First World War.

Geoffrey Beare, spokesman for the trust, said he hoped the exhibition would help the fund-raising effort by increasing awareness of the range of the artist's talents. "Heath Robinson is known for his wackier illustrations and contraptions, but he was actually one of Britain's most accomplished illustrators of children's books and literary classics. This exhibition aims to show that he produced much more serious images - his scenes from Shakespeare's history plays are quite violent."

Heath Robinson is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, from 5 November to 18 January, then travels to Liverpool, Newcastle and Bath

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