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Shakespeare & Beyond

W. Heath Robinson: Shakespeare Illustrated by "Britain's Rube Goldberg"

Illustration of Orsino, bewitched by spirits of love
Illustration of Orsino, bewitched by spirits of love
Shakespeare Illustration by W. Heath Robinson

“Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet…” From “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Folger Shakespeare Library

by Margaretta S. Frederick
Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite Collection, Delaware Art Museum

Although beloved in his native country of England, William Heath Robinson is little known in the world beyond.  Not for much longer: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”—the winds of change are blustery! In October 2016 the Heath Robinson Museum opened in Pinner, in northwest London, and in March, Wonder and Whimsy: the Illustrations of W. Heath Robinson opened at the Delaware Art Museum, bringing the work of this artist to American audiences for the first time.

Born in 1872 in London, into a family of illustrators, Heath Robinson’s working life spanned an interesting moment in the history of illustration, accommodating significant changes in print technology, aesthetic preference, and the field of illustration. Yet he survived economically and flourished in the public eye, largely due to his embrace of a broader range of visual work. This included traditional book and magazine illustration; the writing and illustration of his own children’s stories; an extensive body of work in commercial advertising; and a secondary career as an illustrator of humorous imagery. It is for his later comic illustrations, many of them featuring complex contraptions which performed simple tasks, that he is best remembered. He has been described as the “British Rube Goldberg.”

A "tipped in" color plate, from the Folger's copy of "Twelfth Night." Shakespeare illustration by W. Heath Robinson

A “tipped in” color plate, from the Folger’s copy of “Twelfth Night.”

The Delaware exhibition includes a selection of original drawings from two editions of Shakespeare’s plays, Twelfth Night1 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.2 Unsurprisingly, examples of both of these “gift book” editions are included in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection.

  1. Shakespeare’s comedy of Twelfth Night: or What You Will. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908.
  2. Shakespeare’s comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. London: Constable & Co., 1914.
  3. My Line of Life. London: Blackie & Son, 1938.
  4. Lamb, Charles. Tales from Shakespeare. London: Sands & Company, 1901


Enchanted to learn of the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner – on my list of things to do asap. I’m in London, so no problem. Wish I could come to the US to visit the Folger Library, but I don’t think anyone will be visiting you willingly in the present political climate.

Heather Owen — April 11, 2017