Sunday, 30 October 2016

The Heath Robinson Museum

Pinner Memorial Park
West End Lane

Saturday 30 October 2016

With Linda meeting a friend, Roger and I took the Metropolitan Line to Pinner and strolled to this new and splendid celebration of William Heath Robinson's life and work. He lived here before moving to Surrey.

The Museum is very new, and one of the charming attendants told us that the lighting is still incomplete: certainly those of us with varifocals had to squint a bit at the captions, but the display and the explanations made it all worth while. The permanent display tells the story of his life.
Born in 1872, and from an artistic family, he was a book illustrator, including fairy stories, and some Shakespeare plays. He also wrote illustrated his own books, including The Adventures of Uncle Lubin. The Museum contains a number of volumes of his work, as well as many framed versions.  

To help him make a living, he produced humorous drawing for magazines and newspapers, the Daily Sketch recognising his wit and skill early on. He designed a series of nursery plates, and was employed to embellish one of the bars in the RMS Empress of Britain. Since she was sunk by a U-Boat when serving as a troop ship in 1940, only a couple of the plaques remain.

His watercolours and book covers and illustrations are all delightful, but of course. like most fans, we were really there to see the 'gadgets'. These began well before 1914, but became especially popular during the First World War. Some of these works are in the main gallery, and some in the temporary gallery, which is at the moment showing 'the artist at war'.

Perhaps shaken by the propaganda about atrocities and secret weapons, he designed a series of supposed German war machines: a set of open doors and windows with air hoses to give our boys stiff necks being one example.  Even more endearing are pictures from a a series called The Saintly Hun. From 1916 comes 'Three Uhlans helping an old lady cross the river Meuse'. Since the Uhlans were the troops most accused of burning churches and bayonetting babies in the government's heavy-handed propaganda was, this was perhaps his riposte.

At this point I should say that even Roger's skills as a photographer can't catch the dense detail of the works. But I hope they will give you enough of a flavour to get you to Pinner.

When it comes to the Second World War, Heath Robinson has slightly different targets. Fear of invasion is one of his subjects. There is a detailed seaside scene of deckchairs, sandcastles, ice cream stalls and the bandstand, each on an individual plinth under the water to give the impression of shallow water and thus drown the invading Nazis, who are shown stepping off their landing craft and sinking. But if they had landed, the tank stopper would have used melting butter (this was before rationing began, naturally) to stop them -  literally -  in their tracks. He also has a plan for 'doubling Gloucester cheese by the Gruyere method'.

Next, he has something to say about reserved occupations. A factory using complex machines to make the holes in waistcoat buttons is one example, as is 'testing the strength of washing lines'.

His third invention was the 6th Column, the brave chaps (and women) dealing with the Fifth Column, about which the government was obsessed. They are shown dismantling a secret gun emplacement in the dome of St Paul's for example.

Since the dastardly doings of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of the war, were a constant topic of Nazi Propaganda, Heath Robinson also depicts him planting a bomb under Hitler's breakfast table, disguised as a swan to sow magnetic mines, and so on.

Finally, we come to the glorious series of modern life-style guides for which he is possibly most famous. Living in Flats is probably the best known, but they are all represented here.

And then it was 'exit through the Gift Shop', as Banksy said.  They have lovely postcards and books and mugs and tea towels. But I would suggest that they have got the jigsaws a bit wrong:  35 pieces is great for children, but the adult puzzle-addict is looking for 1000 pieces, rather than 250, I should say:  perhaps a collage of assorted images. When they have one, I shall be back. Actually, I shall probably be back anyway.

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