Update: William Heath Robinson’s The Spirit of Christmas in Regent Street sold for £7,500, or $10,668.
What you see: The Spirit of Christmas in Regent Street, an undated work on paper by William Heath Robinson. Bonhams estimates it at £3,000 to £5,000, or $4,200 to $6,900.
Who was William Heath Robinson? He was the British counterpart to the American illustrator Rube Goldberg, gaining fame for drawing ridiculous, absurdly overcomplicated machines that might involve pulleys, steam engines, candles, and maybe all three and more. In the UK, the phrase “Heath Robinson contraption” served the pop-culture shorthand role that the phrase “Rube Goldberg device” still serves here. His wacky, klunky machines inspired the code-breakers at Bletchley Park to name one of their automatic analysis machines in his honor. He also illustrated editions of classic books such as The Arabian Knights, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, and several Shakespeare plays. Robinson died in 1944 at the age of 72.
How did this illustration come to be? Did Robinson create it for a book? “I think it was published in Nash’s Magazine, a London magazine that merged with The Pall Mall Magazine in 1914,” says Jenny Hardie, a specialist in the modern British and Irish art department at Bonhams. “I don’t think it was a cover. I think it was within the magazine. It’s been hard to track down an original copy and find a date. Circa 1910 to 1920 has been my thought.”
Please don’t take this the wrong way–I love the U.K. so much that I honeymooned in London in the month of January–but this illustration has more happy British people in it that I’ve ever seen in one place. Is that typical of Robinson’s work? “He had a good-natured approach to his subjects,” she says. “It was typical of his work to see a jolly outlook from all his characters. That’s why it’s such an endearing piece. The British are not seen as outwardly jolly, or dancing in the streets. His work is very, very humorous and good-natured.”
Do you think the scene and the setting–London at Christmas on Regent Street, which still pretty much looks like this a century later–will expand the bidding audience for the artwork? “Images of London have a large popular appeal. Adding double-decker buses and a Bobby on the beat in a central London location… I would anticipate it would appeal to collectors of his work inside and outside the U.K.,” she says. “It’s an iconic location, and a quite specific location. It might appeal to people who are not as interested in his contraptions. And it’s such a fun image.”
You point out that The Spirit of Christmas on Regent Street does not have a Heath Robinson contraption in it. Will that make it less interesting to collectors? “In a way, I don’t think it really matters,” she says. “The ones with contraptions in them do well, but this subject is so specific, people will be interested in it for what it is. It’s specific to its time and place. Though it has no contraptions, it’s a really lively piece.”
How often do original William Heath Robinson works come to auction? “They come fairly regularly, but it’s unusual for a collection to come to auction all at once,” she says, explaining that the Bonhams sale contains seven other pieces by Robinson (they appear as lots 22 through 29).
How unusual is it to have an original William Heath Robinson that’s fresh to market? “Quite a few have been offered at auction before, but what’s unusual about this one is it was acquired from the estate of the artist in 1978,” she says, noting that six in the group of eight in the sale went from the estate to the consignor and ultimately to Bonhams.
Was London at Christmas an unusual subject for Robinson? “In July 1989 at Christie’s South Kensington, The Spirit of Christmas on the Riviera sold for £20,000, the second-highest result for him at auction,” she says. “It could have been part of a series on Christmas in different places around the world, but I was not able to find anything more comparable to that work.”
What’s the record for a Robinson at auction? “£23,000, set at Bonhams in 1989 by a piece called Aerial Life,” she says.
What the heck happened in 1989 that made Robinson so desirable to bidders? Hardie laughs. “I’m not sure why the prices he achieved then were so high,” she says, noting that the third-place entry on the most-expensive list sold in 1990. “He had a moment with those three works.”
In 2016, a museum dedicated to William Heath Robinson opened in England. Does that affect the value of his originals at all? “It’s great that there’s a museum devoted just to him. Perhaps more people will want to collect his work. But we don’t see more consignments coming in as a result,” she says.
Why will this Robinson work on paper stick in your memory? “It’s so detailed. The more you look at it, the more you find other things in it that are really fun, whether it’s the neighbors toasting each other from their windows, or the Christmas crackers falling from the sky,” she says. “The man shimmying up the lamppost to get the apple is fun as well. In its style and subject matter, it’s a really fun work which will hopefully do very well.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
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