William Heath Robinson, the youngest of three brothers, was born in Hornsey Rise, North London, in 1872. He studied at Islington School of Art and briefly at the Royal Academy and had initial ambitions to become a landscape artist. However, he had a great talent for illustration and established himself in 1900 with his drawings for The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. These were followed by two successful books which he both wrote and illustrated – 1902’s Uncle Lubin and Bill the Minder in 1912.
Heath Robinson was a prolific illustrator and was published almost without a break in The Sketch, The Tatler, The Bystander and The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News from the Edwardian era right up to the Second World War. Of editor Bruce Ingram’s decision to publish him in The Sketch in 1905, he admitted it “fairly launched me on my career as a humorous artist”.
Like most illustrators of the time, he was equally adept at commercial work and took commissions from a variety of well-known companies, including Hovis, Ransome’s Lawnmowers and Mackintosh Toffees. His lighthearted wartime cartoons, published most regularly in The Sketch and The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News during this period depicted the British and the Germans attempting to “straf” one another with an increasingly fiendish, if ludicrous, series of military inventions from magnets to separate Tommies from the buttons holding up their breeches, to an incapacitating and panic-inducing attack with Tatcho, a contemporary hair restorer.
The Sketch published his pictures in series with tongue-in-cheek themes including, “Rejected by the Inventions Board”, “Breaches of the Hague Convention” and “When Peace Comes Along”. A number of pictures were compiled together into a book entitled Some Frightful War Pictures.