William Heath Robinson was the younger brother of two illustrators, Charles and Thomas. His father was also an illustrator and his grandfather engraved illustrations for newspapers and magazines. William studied at Islington School and the Royal Academy and his first ambition was to become a landscape artist.
Heath Robinson's drawing throws a unique, offbeat light on British society between the wars, as Jerome Monahan explains
This picture first appeared in print on December 9, 1928, in the Sunday Graphic magazine. Its title, "How To Take Advantage Of The Savoy Orphean Dance Music Broadcast By The BBC Without Disturbing Your Neighbour In The Flat Below", refers to the hugely popular radio concerts involving one of the Savoy Hotel's two resident bands and is meant to be deliberately ponderous. Heath Robinson's fame, despite his being one of the 20th century's greatest book illustrators, is largely derived from such comic illustrations involving incredible machines. By his usual standards, "Savoy Orphean" is quite a simple situation, with the focus of fun resting on the heroic efforts of the solid folks upstairs to indulge their tastes for the latest dance craze within the constraints of good manners.
As well as the overall lunacy of the situation, the delight is in the detail. Notice the fixed expressions of the dancers, the firmly placed monocles and spectacles, the look of concentration on the poor servant's face as she attempts to negotiate her tray of drinks through the melee, and the highly optimistic arrow suggesting the smooth operation of this modern-day May Pole. With consummate skill, the artist manages to compose the 25 revellers, suggesting their collective movement without losing their individual eccentricities.
The other crucial factor which distinguishes all Heath Robinson's works is the suggestion of imminent chaos. How long will it be before the radio wires become impossibly tangled or the hot-water bottles attached to high-heeled shoes burst? Adding to the intrigue is the relationship between the upstairs and downstairs worlds, which are exposed by the intriguing peeling away of the building's front elevation. In his autobiography My Line of Life (out of print), he suggests that the success of his gadget images rests on him treating them seriously, adopting a "rather severe style... in which everything was laboriously and clearly defined".
For him, the joke could only work in a picture like this if it seemed he was in complete sympathy with every one of his rotund revellers.
Such artistic sincerity had its disadvantages, as revealed during a visit by a "hopeful young journalist" to Heath Robinson's home shortly before the First World War. It quickly became apparent that the man expected the place to be a mass of ingenious devices, in the midst of which the artist would resemble some kind of "mad hatter, wandering around absent-mindedly, with my pockets full of knotted string". At times, Heath Robinson resented being pigeon-holed in such a way, but he was a practical man with a sizeable family to support and his contraption images remained in demand throughout his lifetime.
Although he was an enormously adaptable artist, capable of illustrating everything from Francois Rabelais to William Shakespeare, it was his lunatic machines that defined him. They earned him the sobriquet "The Gadget King" and also brought him grammatical immortality - his name entering the lexicon as the ideal adjective with which to describe any piece of engineering apparently more complex than useful. It helped that he was blessed with a seemingly inexhaustible imagination, preferring to produce numbers of images on a particular theme so that he could explore all the "ramifications and applications of a single idea". In 1936, he would build on the "Savoy Orpheans" image, creating an entire book offering ridiculous visions of how to live in a flat. The difficulties of flat living were well known to him. He started his married life in rented rooms in north London, next door to a music hall. In his biography he describes how the audience's applause would punctuate proceedings in his home, often at inopportune times.
The picture also reflects the impact of the BBC. In 1928 public broadcasting was only six years old and listening to the radio was hugely popular. This was the age of big bands and jazz, and broadcasts featuring the Savoy Hotel's resident orchestras were a key part of the schedule. The Savoy Orpheans were the highest paid band of the decade and they helped popularise the music that accompanied such imported American dance styles as the Charleston and the Lindy Hop. Judging by the syncopated leg swinging of the front two couples depicted here in profile, it's the Charleston that is on the bill from studio 2LO at the BBC's Savoy Hill headquarters.
It was a studio that was familiar to Heath Robinson since he also broadcast from there in 1923, asking listeners to submit a drawing in his "gadget" style, illustrating a description he had given of the trouble he had faced erecting a radio aerial. He set listeners a second task in December 1925, requiring them to follow a set of drawing instructions given out on air, the answers to which were designed to fit a grid that people were asked to prepare before the show. Fifteen thousand people of all ages sent in their entries.
While there's no doubt that this image has great potential as a source of insight into a particular historic moment, its value today may lie in it being a prompt for English lesson-time discussions about its narrative and humour. Its superb balance, confidence of line and expert use of washes should also be an inspiration in art classes. Despite its absurdity, the picture is an ideal introduction for citizenship and PSHE discussions about empathy and good neighbourliness, which are highly topical at this time when concerns about anti-social behaviour are running high.
'Heath Robinson' is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 7AD, until January 8, 2004. Admission charge for adults; children and booked school parties free. Tel: 020 8693 5254www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk
Lesson ideas English and citizenship Key stage 12
Separate the images and invite children to discuss their meaning and contents separately before rejoining them. Use the image as an adjunct to discussion about care for others or respecting other's personal space.
*Create the letter of complaint that caused the upstairs neighbours to take these extraordinary measures.
* Discuss the need to empathise with others and the laws concerning noise and nuisance.
* Use Heath Robinson's illustration as a stimulus for improvised work, exploring contrasts such as sound and silence. Ask students to write about their neighbours and what their homes reveal about them. Students could also reflect on what kinds of neighbours they are.
* Use "Savoy Orpheans" as a prompt for discussions about satire and comedy, and with George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody. The image would also make a good stimulus for creative writing in English language ASA2 courses.
* Peel away the front of a building or other structure to reveal the life inside.
* This image is Heath Robinson's adaptation of a George Cruickshank illustration for his 1837 Comic Almanac. Heath Robinson is an excellent source of study because of the kind of response he shows to previous works of art, and also because of his consummate compositional skills and expertise as a water-colourist.
Design and technology KS12
* Create the perfect ear muffs or a noiseless dancing shoe (a refinement of slipper-making, often tried in Year 6).
* Create a Heath Robinson-style of design for a hugely complex machine for a very simple or unnecessary domestic task.