CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Derbyshire Life today CLICK HERE

The curious contraptions of Heath Robinson

PUBLISHED: 15:11 03 February 2015

The Aeronaut

The Aeronaut

heath robinson derby museums copyright protected

As Derby Museum & Art Gallery devotes an exhibition to the illustrator, Lauren Allen looks at his life and works and why he occupies a special place in the hearts of Derby makers

A convenient little room for early breakfastA convenient little room for early breakfast

The moment that changed the world of cartoon history forever came in 1887 when up-and-coming artist William Heath Robinson abandoned his aspirations to become a landscape artist and switched to illustrating books.

He first gained renown in the publishing world with illustrations for a ground-breaking edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in 1899, followed by works such as an edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, for which he was highly acclaimed. This helped to exercise his artistic talents, but the pictures of complicated and outlandish cartoon contraptions, for which he was to become a household name, arose from three children’s books he both wrote and illustrated: The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), Bill the Minder (1912) and Peter Quip in Search of a Friend (1922).

The Adventures of Uncle Lubin was the start of his career as a depictor of implausible machines; the artwork of the Aeronaut on the cover hinting at the playful mind of the author and giving some indication of the crazy stories to be found inside.

Heath Robinson’s work struck a chord with the British love of eccentricity and inventiveness and his appeal was not just due to the contraptions he invented but also to the obliviousness of the people using his machines as if they are perfectly acceptable everyday aids. This was his way of poking fun at modern living and caricaturing the age of the rise of the machine. His work eventually appeared in the pages of The Sketch and Tatler, who commissioned him to delight their readers with whimsical drawings of crazy and complex inventions that achieved ludicrously simple time-saving results.

Railway Ribaldry - Electric TelegraphRailway Ribaldry - Electric Telegraph

Heath Robinson came into his own during the First World War as he turned his attention to military machines, creating gentle satirical cartoons which soon proved hugely popular with the soldiers. Indeed it was during the war years that machines which seemed complicated without being immediately practical or effective became widely referred to as ‘a bit Heath Robinson’.

During the Second World War, such was Heath Robinson’s fame that it was said his caricatures of Germans, the Home Front and the machines of war made a contribution to the war effort by raising morale. Behind the scenes, his sons went off to fight for Britain and, explaining why his cartoons did not seem to feature the enemies as might be expected, he said he felt the Nazis were too terrible to be shown by his gentle humour.

William Heath Robinson died in 1944 and although he was never comfortable being pigeonholed as a whimsical cartoonist – preferring to be appreciated as an artist with a wider range – his name will forever be associated with any machine that is improbable, amateur and only functioning because of a combination of constant tinkering, lashings of duck tape and sheer luck.

The original version of the Aeronaut on the cover of The Adventures of Uncle Lubin, and another picture from the book, The Submarine, form part of a collection of 35 pieces of Heath Robinson artwork that are on show at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until March. Entitled ‘The Curious Contraptions of Heath Robinson’, the exhibition provides a pictorial history of his career as ‘The Gadget Man’. The added attraction of hosting an exhibition in Derby is that as the home of Rolls-Royce, Bombardier and Toyota, it is very much a maker’s city.

How to avoid being caught in any part of the fieldHow to avoid being caught in any part of the field

‘Heath Robinson’s work is about making madcap machines in a world of “serious” manufacturing, as is Derby’s,’ says Jonathan Wallis, head of museums, ‘and his work is synonymous with the spirit of many things that Derby Museums have been doing recently to celebrate Derby as a city of makers.

‘We are very honoured to have it here with us. His work has not been displayed in Derby on this scale since 1941, when according to the curators’ diary it was the most successful exhibition of the year.’

The pictures – including a local link to Derby’s railway history with Heath’s illustration ‘An Early Signal’ – are on loan from the William Heath Robinson Trust which is currently developing a new museum at West House in Pinner, Middlesex.

The exhibition at Derby will be accompanied by a series of events and projects to allow visitors to explore their own inventive and ‘wacky’ sides – ensuring Heath Robinson and his madcap creations continue to inspire a new generation of makers.

For opening times visit


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Derbyshire Life and Countryside visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Derbyshire Life and Countryside staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Derbyshire Life and Countryside account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

Pat Ashworth talks to Lady Edward Manners about Christmas at the Hall where they’ll be celebrating the first family Christmas for 300 years

Read more

As winter strikes, what strategies have our wildlife developed to help them survive these harsher months

Read more

A look at the festive themes and events at the county’s great houses

Read more

A ten-minute drive from the western edge of Sheffield brings thrill-seekers to a Derbyshire valley where outdoor activities are thriving.

Read more

Andrew Griffiths meets Jim Dixon, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Peak District National Park.

Read more

This walk offers a dance with the Dove and a meander by the Manifold, whilst along the way passing a church, castle remains, country houses and a hollow way

Read more

With winter on the horizon, trees glow with colour, migratory birds arrive and house spiders set off in search of a mate

Read more

Ann Hodgkin investigates a case of the sincerest form of flattery… or industrial espionage!

Read more

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s vision is of landscapes rich in wildlife, valued by everyone. They will achieve this 
by pursuing their mission of creating Living Landscapes. Here Julia Gow, the White Peak Reserve Officer at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust tells us about the reserve above the River Wye

Read more

Nigel Powlson visits Sudbury where a shopping courtyard is attracting even more visitors to this quintessential English village

Read more

If you’re walking in the Peak District, the chances are that you could encounter a reservoir at some point during your ramble. There are dozens of resevoirs dotted around all corners of the national park, we pick some of our favourite walks from our archive.

Read more
Peak District

A five-year Heritage Lottery-funded scheme, launched in 2010, was designed to encourage the restoration and conservation of the distinctive landscape character of a large area of north-east Derbyshire.

Read more

Enjoy the wonder of woodland in our glorious Derwent Valley on this park and ride special.

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Subscribe or buy a mag today

Topics of Interest

Local Business Directory

Property Search