Heath Robinson is not an artist I would associate with illustrating the works of Shakespeare. Robinson achieved fame as a caricaturist of absurd machinery, which is operated by bespectacled bald and overly serious men. So I was very surprised when discovering on a book dealer’s website a 1914 edition of Midsummer Night’s Dream illustrated by Heath Robinson. Could it be the Heath Robinson I wondered, the caricaturist or another artist with the same name? As I soon found out, it was the same man. The book was advertised as lavishly illustrated, containing twelve colour plates and numerous black and white illustrations done in a style typical of the turn of the century period, and so I purchased it, as there are no illustrated editions of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Heath Robinson in our library collection. I hope visitors to our library will have the same sense of discovery that I felt when flicking through the book for the first time.
Heath Robinson’s illustrations of Midsummer Night’s Dream hark back to the landscape paintings he created as a young art graduate. When he first started off as an artist, he hoped to earn his living by selling his landscape paintings but only ever sold one painting – to a friend. His brothers were already achieving financial success as illustrators and he realised that creating drawings for the rapidly developing publications of the day was more likely to earn him a living. Creating drawings for commercial adverts, such as the humorous advert for Hovis Bread, which is also in our collection, were his bread and butter.
Heath Robinson once said that the word 'funny' irritated him and he saw nothing funny in his work at all. Perhaps he viewed the machinery he was depicting with the same seriousness as the bald men in his drawings, or maybe he was tired of being pigeonholed? Although he didn’t like this phrase and might have seen his own work differently from how other people saw it, in his illustrations of Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are glimpses of humour evident in the mischievously smiling faces of some of the characters. Comparing his illustrations with that of other artists of the time, such as Arthur Rackham, his take on the play seems light-hearted in contrast to Rackham’s almost sinister drawings. Robinson’s elegant black and white drawings have more in common with the equally elegant black and white illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley. The colour plates focus more on the landscapes rather than individual figures, who are dwarfed by their surroundings, and are a reflection of his desire to create serious landscape paintings.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream wasn’t the first play by Shakespeare Heath Robinson illustrated. In 1908 Hodder and Stoughton published an edition of Twelfth Night illustrated by him. During the early 1920s, Heath Robinson created 350 drawings for a proposed edition of the complete works of Shakespeare. Unfortunately, it was never published. Undoubtedly these illustrations would help us discover more about Heath Robinson’s artistic output and even see him in a new light.