Thomas Heath Robinson, 1869-1953

Born into a family of artists, Thomas Heath Robinson - like his younger brothers, Charles and William - followed in the footsteps of his father (who was chief illustrator for The Penny Illustrated Paper) and uncle (who worked for The Illustrated London News). He first studied at the Islington School of Art in about 1885. His plan was to build a career as an illustrator. Accordingly, he submitted his portfolio to several publishers and was rewarded with his first commission, in 1893, to produce a series of line drawings for a short story by popular novelist, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, for the Pall Mall Magazine. The monthly Magazine was launched in 1893 as an off-shoot of the extremely successful newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette. Its aim was to offer well-illustrated short stories, poetry and serialised novels. Within a short time, it had established a reputation for commissioning leading writers and artists to produce work for the publication. Thus, Thomas Heath Robinson found his career launched in a new and popular paper illustrating the work of a well-established writer of sensational stories.

Two years later, in 1895, Robinson was commissioned to illustrate what turned out to be a remarkable book, by Frank Rinder, Old World Japan - Legends of the Land of the Gods. From the gilt illustration of a graceful Japanese lady on the green cloth cover, to the black and white vignettes and full-page illustrations peppered through the text, this book is a gem. Clearly, it reveals contemporary enthusiasm for things Japanese - a taste which had burgeoned since the 1860s and the reopening of Japan to the West - and also Robinson’s remarkable talent and agility as an illustrator. Certainly, he must have looked to Japanese prints and have been excited by the plunging perspectives, asymmetrical patterns and the incisive lines. It is also interesting to compare Robinson’s illustrations with those produced, in the same year, by the young Aubrey Beardsley[1] for Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Beardsley, of course, had learned much from Japanese prints. He had also been excited by the work of artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, whose stylishly erotic posters were beginning to adorn the walls of Paris in the early ‘90s. Beardsley had already made his public debut as an illustrator in April, 1893, with his striking interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s femme fatale, Salome, in the art magazine, The Studio. In contrast, Thomas Heath Robinson's illustrations for Rinder’s book on Japan do not have the same static figures, tense with eroticism, that we find in Beardsley, but they do reveal a vivid exploration of the power of black and white in illustrations that are at once full of sinuous, Art Nouveau movement and rich with exoticism. Robinson and Beardsley must have been well aware of one another's work.

Robinson had made his name and - during these years when finely-illustrated books reached levels of quality and popularity which they have probably never exceeded - he was in demand as one of the leading black and white artists of the period. Indeed, he led the way for his brothers, Charles and William, who also launched themselves as successful illustrators in the 1890s and early 1900s.

In the first decade of his career, Thomas Heath Robinson illustrated over 30 books, in addition to work in magazines and other journals. At the same time, he began to work in colour, developing his skills in oil paintings, focusing on landscapes and portraits. From 1906, when he moved to the London suburb of Pinner, his family and the local countryside were often the subjects he loved most.

The First War brought with it many problems. Work dried up; the market for fine, illustrated books dwindled. Heath Robinson might have been struggling, financially, but this did not stop him from continuing to sketch and paint. Indeed, it was after the War that he and his brothers – popularly called the ‘three musketeers’ - joined the Langham Sketching Club. Established as early as 1838, this had long been the home of some of the best black and white illustrators. Weekly, artists gathered together to sketch and then to enjoy a discussion about their work. They held regular exhibitions and these proved popular with the public and dealers.

Before the First War, Robinson had already been commissioned to illustrate several history books for children, by the publisher, Blackie. Frequently printed in colour, Robinson's lithographs make clear his increasingly bold use of composition, perspective and pattern. After the War, the revival of a market for illustrated books was tardy but, by the 1920s, Robinson was being commissioned once again, especially to produce illustrations to children’s books. From this time on, some of his best work must have enriched the lives of inter-War children and introduced them to history, science, literature and adventure through books issued by several publishers, including Blackie and Cassell.

Thomas Heath Robinson continued to paint in oils. Quite often, his pictures were preparatory work for some of his lithographic illustrations. These paintings are very engaging. Given that the illustrations were aimed largely at children, the oils immediately capture attention: patterns of busy movement; the action staged in the foreground; emphatic silhouettes; the drama heightened by the use of patches of strong, complementary colours. There is a joyousness to these pictures, a sense that Robinson, in his imagination, is in the midst of it all; there is even a hint of the ridiculous - which reminds us that, in the inter-War years, William Heath Robinson, Thomas’s brother and close neighbour, built a reputation based almost entirely on a comic output.

Robinson retired to St Ives - which was, of course, an artists’ colony as well as a place he had enjoyed on many holidays. Until the end, he continued to work. Focusing mainly on oil paintings, these were now usually divorced from the demands of lithographic reproduction. He never lost the compositional devices he had learned from his early studies - of Japanese prints, photography and fin de siècle black and white illustrations - and he continued to focus on dramatic narratives. But - perhaps in response to the delights of St Ives - his palette lightened and his colour became more variegated and subtle, applied with a deft and painterly touch.

Thomas Heath Robinson’s work is well worth searching for. His brilliant, black and white illustrations, the theatrical paintings he produced in preparation for his vivid colour lithographs and the sketches and oil paintings of his later years reveal an artist who continued to experiment throughout his life. The art dealer, Chris Beetles, in 1992, was one of the first to recognise the worth of all three of the Heath Robinson brothers and produced The Brothers Robinson, which is a wonderfully well-illustrated account of their work. Thomas, the eldest, may now be the least well-known, but he was probably the most adventurous and certainly not the least gifted.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] It seems that both Thomas Heath Robinson and Aubrey Beardsley studied – probably at evening classes – at the Westminster Art School, then under Fred Brown. We have not discovered whether they were there at the same time as one another; but the deft line and theatrical compositions of both may owe something to this tutelage.