Once upon a time I popped into a local antiques fair when I was a student and, while rooting through the shelves of a book dealer, came across a copy of ‘The Works of Rabelais, Volume 1,’ illustrated by William Heath Robinson in 1904. It was selling for £21, which at the time would have been the most I’d ever paid for a book. I hovered around it for some time, and even came back later to see if it was still there, but eventually decided I couldn’t possibly afford it on my overdraft and I was too shy to haggle. So I walked away. How often I’ve wished I could go back and hand over the cash and live with the consequences.
The book is in two volumes, for which Heath Robinson did over 250 drawings. For me it’s his masterpiece and one of the pinnacles of English book illustration. It was given good reviews when it came out but the publisher went bankrupt before he was paid. Being well known but in need of money he started to produce the humorous drawings of mad inventions for which he is most celebrated today.
This is the frontispiece to Volume 1 – a photogravure image with a tissue guard. Opposite it is the title page, which gives the full name of the book: ‘The Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, Doctor in physick. Containing Five Books of the Lives, Heroick Deeds and Sayings of Gargantua and his sonne Pantagruel.’
Being an uncultured lout I’ve never read Rabelais and don’t know the story. However, this appears to be a picture of Gargantua as a baby. I’ll write more about Heath Robinson etc. as we go along.
Note: The images I’m going to post over the next week or so are taken from Google Books. I’ve removed their logo to zoom in on the drawings. They’re fairly low quality jpegs so I’ve tried to enhance them a bit in Photoshop, but a great deal of the subtlety of the drawings has been lost.