Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘Heath Robinson’

Infernal machines (part 2)

In which we discuss an artist of invention

The other week, I wrote about W Heath Robinson, and how I first discovered him: illustrating the children’s books of Norman Hunter. He wasn’t as good for the stories, though, as a later illustrator, who is much less well known. His name is George Adamson.*

Adamson’s work is, in a sense, much more mundane and ordinary than even Robinson’s. Robinson is, in his “mechanical” work, an artist of ridiculous things. Adamson, though, makes ridiculous things look ordinary. Like, for example, a Mayor having to take his tea in a bathtub:

The Mayor taking tea in a bathtub

Robinson’s machines look entirely plausible, and their workings are out on show. Adamson’s machinery, though, is hidden away. It’s magical, because you can’t see how it might do what it’s supposed to; it fits Hunter’s descriptions of machines that can do the physically impossible. Some of them are sinister: very 1950s in design, plain cases with the occasional dial or switch, presumably painted grey or pale green. Others are more complicated, but their working is never obvious or spelled out. They are wonderful depictions of machines which never do as they are supposed to.

The Professor

* not to be confused, of course, with George Adamson

Infernal machines (part one)

In which we talk about a classic artist

A few months back, I saw, on a friend’s bookshelf, art books about members of the Robinson family: Charles Robinson and his better-known brother William Heath Robinson; and I resolved to write about them here. It’s taken me a while.

The wonderful thing about Heath Robinson’s work – apart from the army of identikit men who keep his machines running – is that everything looks entirely workable, in a certain sense. Everything looks as if it should fit together and run smoothly, especially with his little arrows and dashed lines to show that this moves that way, that cog turns like so, and the lever over on that side swings round to hit the golf ball over here.

The first place I came across Heath Robinson, though, I found him slightly unsatisfactory. In the 1930s he illustrated two children’s books by writer Norman Hunter, about an absent-minded inventor called Professor Branestawm, a creator of amazing, fantastical, physically impossible inventions. Robinson’s illustrations were just too possible – although they may well have worked, they could never have done everything described in the story. I was, as a child, disappointed. I much preferred his 1970s illustrator – but I’ll tell you about him another time.


In which things go in phases

Do you go through phases of liking different sorts of art, different fashions, as you get older?

The other day someone said to me: “all teenage boys go through a surrealist phase”. And, it’s true, I had a surrealist phase when I was a teenager. Some of them – Salvador Dalí, for example – never grow out of it.* Most do, though, and go on to other things. When I was small, I was also a Heath Robinson fan, and it took me a while to realise that he had ever done anything other than the bizarre machinery cartoons which made him a household name.**

So, did you go through art phases when you were younger? What artists did you like then that you really don’t care about now? I want to see if this is true in general, or if it just applies to floating rocks and lobster telephones.

* Magritte, on the other hand, did grow up – I assume he just had strange fetishes for bowler hats and sleighbells.

** I have more to write about Heath Robinson soon, but no time to write it now.