British family Robinson: the short stories of three illustrators
March 20, 2013 9:00 AM   Subscribe

Thomas Robinson and Eliza Heath had three sons, Thomas (1869-1950), Charles (1870-1937), and William (1872-1944), who followed in their father's (and grandfather's) footsteps as illustrators of various sorts. The most widely know was the youngest, W. Heath Robinson, whose contraptions earned him the reputation as the UK counterpart to the US artist Rube Goldberg. But the other two brothers are not to be overlooked.

Thomas Robinson was an all-round artist, he worked in pen, colour, oils and etchings, but never had the flair for the creation of the fantastic or the talent for decoration and design of his brothers, and he has not received much (lasting/online) recognition.

Charles was a prolific artist, working first with engravings as his father and grandfather had, but he was an artist at the exciting period when photographic reproduction was a burgeoning technique, giving commercial illustrators the chance to expand their styles. Though never formally trained, Charles illustrated lots of fairy tales and children's books throughout his career, including the colorful Lilliput Lyrics (1899), which can be compared to Big Book of Fairy Tales (1896 edition), in which Charles provided some black and white illustrations, and The True Annals of Fairy Land: The Reign of King Herla (1900), which features fanciful illustrations black, red and blue, with a more vivid cover. That is not to say that Charles Robinson was limited without color, as his work in Percy Bysshe Shelley's limited edition print of The Sensitive Plant (1899) is lush and detailed. Charles also worked with water colors, more so later in his life.

William Robinson was formally trained as a painter, wishing to be a landscape artist, but turned to follow his family's path and illustrated books as a more steady line of work. William illustrated works written by others, including Shakespeare's Twelfth Night or What You Will, but went on to write his own stories, starting with The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (Google books) in 1902. Ten years later, he wrote and illustrated Bill the Minder, which was quite successful, eventually leading to a 15 episode animated series. That same year, broad recognition of his bizarre contraptions was formalized, when "Heath-Robinson" entered the dictionary, describing "a machine that is very cleverly made and is complicated in a silly or humorous way, but has no practical use," and since then, "Heath-Robinson" has become a more generalized adjective to describe something "having a very complicated design, especially when used to perform a very simple task; not practical."

Parting notes: the three brothers didn't gain the same level of recognition, and though it appears they all shared their mother's maiden name as their middle names and it seems they often went by their first initial plus middle and last name, only William was well enough known by W. Heath Robinson that he is sometimes simply called "Heath Robinson" (the URL for the William Heath Robinson Trust is But there was a time when they all worked together, as seen in the 1899 edition of Fairy tales from Hans Christian Andersen, where they were credited in order of age.
posted by filthy light thief (6 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Most of the links to the individual books point to, where you can read the books online or download them, and I tried to link to the best editions to highlight the artwork. As mentioned in the post, Charles was quite prolific, and if you'd like to see more of his work, he has been identified in 10 books as the illustrator on, though if you dig around, you can find more instances. William, for all his renown, is only credited in 6 titles on, but again, I think you could dig and find more.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:02 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great post, great art, love these guys.
posted by marxchivist at 9:38 AM on March 20, 2013

I wonder if there's other examples of two countries having two different artists whose names are a byword for a certain kind of device or effect who both seem to have developed the idea simultaneously and without influencing each other? It always seems odd to me that "Heath Robinson" and "Rube Goldberg" are such perfect counterparts in non-US and US English.
posted by yoink at 9:48 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a great post, by the way. I never knew about Heath Robinson's brothers. That edition of Shelley's The Sensitive Plant is gorgeous. You can't tell from the edition, but (some of) the illustrations were hand-colored (I went off and looked at what you'd have to pay for a copy now: about $200 for a not-too-beat-up one; there's a nice one up on Ebay right now which shows some of the hand-coloring).
posted by yoink at 9:50 AM on March 20, 2013

yoink, are you sure it's the same edition? The linked edition is limited to 50 copies, but it seems there have been a number of re-prints.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:06 AM on March 20, 2013

The linked edition is limited to 50 copies, but it seems there have been a number of re-prints.

Hmmm. On abebooks they're selling what they claim to be the "first edition" with colored plates. They do mention a select run on vellum; perhaps that's what the "50 copies" was restricted to? But it would appear to be the same "edition" as the somewhat less posh (but still hand-colored) version. Or perhaps they're just wrong.
posted by yoink at 10:17 AM on March 20, 2013

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