London: The Heath Robinson Museum

Heath Robinson Museum is on the right, the building on the left is a cafe.

I don’t remember where I found out about the Heath Robinson Museum, but I filed it away (mentally, I don’t have an actual file) under places that looked interesting, but realistically would only be visited in the case of blogging desperation, because it was all the way in Pinner. I know I often complain about how long it takes to get around London, but I’m not even sure if Pinner is technically London. It’s on the Metropolitan Line (zone 5!), and is only a few stops away from places like Chesham and Amersham, which certainly aren’t London. In fact, it takes so long to get to Pinner that by the time I arrived, I wasn’t entirely surprised to see that it was downright bucolic, at least the area around the Heath Robinson Museum (there was a big Sainsbury’s right across from the station, which did spoil the effect somewhat).


So after sitting on a train for an hour and a half, we had a lovely stroll through some gardens with a duck pond and fountain to reach the museum. Parting with £6 each to see the museum was somewhat less pleasant, given its obvious small size, but a necessary evil. The museum consists of two rooms, with an additional gallery for temporary exhibitions. The museum was obviously fairly new, and indeed, it turns out it was only opened about a year ago, in October 2016. It was busier than I imagined it would be (because who goes to Pinner?!), perhaps because of the park and extremely busy cafe located next door, but “busier than I expected” in a museum this specialised still only amounted to a handful of people, so there was plenty of space to look around without people breathing down your neck (except in the temporary gallery, as I’ll get to later).


I admit that when I first heard of this museum, I had no idea who Heath Robinson was. I only had a flash of recognition when I started reading descriptions of some of his drawings. It turns out that he was an artist and illustrator who lived from 1872-1944, presumably at least some of that time in Pinner, though I don’t remember the museum explicitly stating such (according to their website, he moved out there after he was married), who is most famous for his drawings of strange gadgets and contraptions (he’s basically the British equivalent of Rube Goldberg, and interestingly, they were contemporaries, so I’m not actually sure who started drawing these things first, because the Heath Robinson Museum eschews all mention of his American counterpart. Which is probably also why I didn’t recognise the name at first, because Americans refer to those sort of fanciful machines as Rube Goldberg devices, rather than Heath Robinson devices like Brits do) and his illustrations of the “butterfly effect” (one of his drawings actually illustrates what happens when a butterfly decides to fly through a moving bridge, but other illustrations demonstrate the effects of chaos theory in a less literal manner). Basically, if you saw them, you’d probably know them, and happily, we can test that theory throughout this post using the photos.


The main room had a timeline running all along the walls at about waist height with detailed information about the different phases of Robinson’s career: he started out as an illustrator, and did editions of some major works, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, and some of Kipling’s stories. He then became a cartoonist, and made some quite funny cartoons during WWI, and moved on to drawing the unusual gadgets that his name would become synonymous with (at least in Britain). He also took up watercolour painting later in life, and returned to gentle lampooning during WWII until his death in 1944.


The timeline was accompanied all along, naturally enough, by Robinson’s cartoons and illustrations, and these were truly the highlight of the museum. Some of his drawings were downright hilarious. I particularly liked some of his promotional cartoons for companies like Thomas and Green Paper Makers, as shown above.


I also liked the physical versions of some of his contraptions which were scattered throughout the room (made by other people, because Robinson himself almost never made actual prototypes), although one of them (on the left, above) didn’t appear to be working, as two ladies were trying to fix it throughout the duration of our visit. The one on the right is a model of the apartment block illustrated in his book How to Live in a Flat, a copy of which was helpfully provided next to the model, and very funny it was too, especially if you actually do live in a smallish flat, as I do (I liked the drawing of a man holding a cat in a cage, demonstrating that there was indeed room to “swing a cat” in his tiny flat). There was also a model of an automated house that Robinson described, and it lit up and the machines moved when you inserted a pound, which was probably worth the extra expense.


The other room was seemingly aimed more at children, containing as it did a bunch of hands-on activities, but as there were no kids around, I plopped myself right down and turned my hand to one of Robinson’s drawing tutorials that were played on radio in the 1920s. You had to follow instructions using a grid, and mine did look like a house in the end, but it was distinctly less structurally sound than the sample drawing (and the less said of the man I had to draw living in it, the better). You could also trace one of Robinson’s drawings using a light box, and there was a rad drawing bike, which was meant to draw a picture as you pedalled (I think it was a sort of spirograph thing) though sadly that too didn’t appear to be working on the day of my visit.


The temporary exhibit when I visited (no longer there, now there’s one on “The Water-Babies”) was called “Rejuvenated Junk,” inspired by a series of drawings Robinson did in 1935 that were used to illustrate an article for Strand Magazine called “At Home with Heath Robinson,” in which he envisioned alternative uses for worn-out household objects (such as converting an old tennis racket into a “mirror for large-ish ladies” or using old LPs to make various fashion accessories ranging from hats to parasols and purses). The objects showcased in the exhibition were somewhat less fanciful, being quite cool and innovative ways that artists around the world created something out of junk.


I zoomed right in on the chickens made from plastic bags (I think I’d like to figure out how to do it and make some myself, though with supermarkets charging 5p for a bag these days, it wouldn’t exactly be making something from junk. It could actually get rather expensive!), but there was a lot of cool stuff in here like a dress made from Doritos packets, purses made from toothpaste tubes, and lamps made from old tins.  I also learned that Worcestershire sauce is apparently called “Savoury Spice” in South Africa, at least Colman’s version of it (don’t know if the actual Lea and Perrins stuff is still Worcestershire sauce).


The only problem with this section was that there was a group of extremely chatty ladies in here who would not take a hint and move out of the way. Not only was their inane chatter (about what to cook for a lunch party, I think) distracting when I was trying to read the captions, the most annoying thing was that they parked themselves in front of one of the displays and would not budge, even though they clearly weren’t even looking at it, being quite absorbed in their conversation. Why pay £6 to visit a museum, and then just chat amongst yourselves the whole damn time?! They could have done that in the cafe next door! Rather irritatingly as well, given the long train journey, there was only a disabled toilet available in the museum, and though I suppose I could have used one in the cafe, it was so busy that I ended up just going to the Sainsbury’s by the station (it also came in handy for a much needed snack for the journey home, so I guess I shouldn’t knock it).


As far as Heath Robinson goes, if his drawings are anything to go by, the man was a delight. I really loved looking at them, and getting to learn a bit about him, though I did feel that the information in the museum was a very pared down biography, and they could have offered additional information and examples of his illustrations for people who were interested (they did have a touchscreen that might have had additional drawings on it, but there was only one in the whole museum, and another visitor was waiting to use it, so I didn’t want to monopolise it). To be honest, I was quite happy with the old-school activities as opposed to more modern interactive elements, I just wish all of them had been working when I visited (especially in a museum that new). I’m very much a fan of Robinson’s work now, but the museum didn’t quite live up to his standards; for the £6 admission price, I would have liked to see more in it. But I did enjoy my visit overall, and perhaps they’ll improve more with time; despite the trek getting there, I’m glad I came and saw Robinson’s very funny work, and the temporary exhibit (nonwithstanding the annoying luncheon club (isn’t luncheon a gross word?)) was actually very well done, in fact, I think the quality of the labels there was a bit higher than in the main part of the museum. 3.5/5.


London: Leighton House Museum


Leighton House is the subject of this post solely because it was right by Holland Park, where I ended up last weekend, and not because it was really somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit.  In fact, I didn’t even know much about its former owner,  Frederic Leighton, who was evidently one of the most famous artists of the 19th century; not being very into art, I’d only heard him mentioned in passing, and couldn’t have told you the name of any of his works.  His house is now owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and managed by the Friends of Leighton House, who also run 18 Stafford Terrace, which was Linley Sambourne’s home (Victorian cartoonist for Punch, therefore probably someone I would have been more interested in than Leighton, but alas, his home is open by guided tour only).

I feel like I come across on here as being quite cantankerous, and this post isn’t going to do anything to dispel that notion. Leighton House irked me straightaway because of the snobby demeanor of the woman working the admissions desk.  There was really no need for her to sneer at us because we don’t have a National Trust membership (apparently English Heritage membership isn’t good enough, though honestly I think they’re both equally middle class things to have), and I was even more annoyed when she asked if we wanted a “guidebook” for 50p extra, I said, “no,’ and she charged us for it anyway.  As we’d paid by card, it wasn’t worth demanding a refund for a lousy 50p, but it was the principle of the thing, particularly as the guidebook was awfully crappy – basically just a brochure that would have been free anywhere else.

So after paying £5 each (plus the unwanted guidebook charge), my boyfriend and I were dismayed to discover that the house only consisted of about 6 rooms (and you’re not allowed to take pictures).  Fortunately, there were at least free information sheets in each room, so that we could learn a little bit about the objects inside, as well as Frederic Leighton (since I knew almost nothing about him).  Unfortunately, the information on Leighton himself was scanty, and assumed a fair bit of background knowledge on the part of the visitor, so that whilst I now know basic facts about his life (dates of birth and death, names of siblings, etc.), and that he had a favourite model called Dorothy Dene, with whom he may or may not have been having an affair (or he might have been gay, no one really knows), I still don’t really get why he was important and beloved by the Victorian establishment.

To be fair, some of the downstairs rooms were really neat.  The most famous room is the Arab Hall, which has a fountain in the middle, and is adorned with antique Islamic tiles and stained glass. Very peaceful, and would lend itself well to contemplation, assuming one doesn’t need a wee.  I was unimpressed with the library since it only contained about 50 books, which I feel made the room frankly undeserving of its title.  Presumably the books there were only a part of Leighton’s collection, but still, if I had a library, that room would be crammed floor to ceiling with books (except for the hidden passageway, and the spiral staircases to the upper floor, of course). Poor effort on Leighton’s part.  However, I loved the Narcissus Hall, which was lined with gorgeous blue tiles, and had an excellent bench seat built into the staircase with a stuffed peacock next to it, where I would probably spend all my time curled up with a book from my obviously far more extensive collection, if it were my house (my boyfriend said I would probably talk to the stuffed peacock too, and he’s not wrong, but I reckon it’s marginally better than talking to myself).  There was also a dining room that Queen Victoria visited at one point, and a garden that wasn’t open to the public, though you could peek at it from the window.

Upstairs, there was Leighton’s “monastic-style bedroom” (he lived alone all his adult life, bar a few servants, which is why there is much speculation about his sexuality), and the Silk Room, which was really more of a nook – it had walls papered in green silk, hence the name (William Morris wallpaper was in the supposedly “spartan” bedroom), and was hung with lots of artwork by Leighton and his friends, including a large portrait by Millais of a girl shelling peas.  His studio was massive, and dominated that floor of the house, but there wasn’t much in it except for paintings and a creaky wooden floor. Leighton’s own artwork, at least, the pieces in his house, seemed to consist mainly of sculpture and portraiture; they weren’t really my style, which is perhaps why I wasn’t hugely in love with his house.

That was basically all there was to the place, though his bathroom and a few other areas were closed off to the public (there were public toilets, you just couldn’t look inside Leighton’s loo; disappointing); it took less than half an hour to look around, which made me fairly unhappy about the 5 quid entrance fee, but it is a high-rent area, after all, and I’m sure there is a fair deal of upkeep.  I was very partial to the Arab and Narcissus Halls, but the rest of the house really wasn’t anything special.  Probably worth popping in if you’re a National Trust member, as they get half price entry (which I guess was the reason for the snobbiness of the staff, though why would you cop an attitude about someone paying full price?!), or if you are a fan of Leighton, but not great for those of us who didn’t know anything about him before visiting, and aren’t particular fans of Victorian art.  2.5/5