Saturday, 23 October 2004
A Heath Robinson Affair
I met some old friends for lunch in town on Friday. I hadn't seen Mad Mal and his wife for about a year, so we had some catching up to do.
We met in the cafe area of the Laing Art Gallery, which, along with the rest of the gallery, has been newly decorated. The horrid custard walls, which had such a disastrous effect on the viewing of their fine David Bomberg, have been replaced by a much less obnoxious cream.
Which is fine, except the Bomberg is no longer on the wall. Nor are any of the good pictures that used to line the staircase walls.
It's an unfortunate fact that the modern breed of curators seem not to like things cluttering up their walls, especially those old-fashioned painted things. I'm hoping they're going to put them back in due course, but I can't forget that when Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery was refurbished a few years ago, the big Victorian pictures which used to hang on the walls of the staircase were never put back. And both galleries are run by Tyne & Wear Museums.
Nevertheless, we did have a good time in the current exhibition of W. Heath Robinson illustrations and paintings. Heath Robinson was always one of my heroes, particularly as I once thought I'd like to be an illustrator. I gave up on that when I found I got bored with having to draw the same character more than once - I wanted to invent new ones each time.
The exhibition covers most of his career, from the early work much inspired by Victorian wood-engraving, through his illustrations for Rabelais, Shakespeare and various collections of fairy tales, including Perrault and Hans Andersen, to the illustrations he is best remembered for - the improbable inventions.
There were one or two watercolours done, not as illustrations, but as fine art. I have to say that, despite the blurb attached to them which suggested he was using a much more loose style, they looked very uncomfortable, as if he yearned to get back to his trademark precision.
His mature drawing style is wonderfully concise. He developed a balance of clean even line set off by one or two areas of (usually) solid black which, together with his fondness for an elevated viewpoint, endeared him to me forever.