Charles Robinson - pen (A) Charles Robinson - signature

Charles Robinson represents the struggle within me for preference of media. Do I like the pen and ink more than the watercolors or vice versa? I still don't know the answer. One minute I'm sure it's the watercolors, but then I see one of his elegant, languid, almost Art Nouveau pen drawings and I'm confused again. Then I'm certain, at least until I see another sumptuous watercolor and the mental debate is resumed.

Charles Robinson - pen (B)
  ImageS Issues 4, 7, 9 & 12 feature
Charles Robinson artwork

Charles Robinson - Child's Garden of VersesCharles Robinson was born in 1870. His father was an illustrator and his grandfather engraved the work of illustrators for the burgeoning magazine and newspaper market of the mid 1800's. His older brother, Thomas Heath Robinson, was an illustrator as was William Heath Robinson, his younger brother. Talent ran deep in the family, and all three brothers were raised in an atmosphere that guided them towards their final profession.

After a childhood of assimilating his father's (and his uncle's) craft, and a high school education, Charles was apprenticed to a printer where he worked the lithographic stones. For the seven years of his indenture, he did his best to take art lessons in the evenings. His studies were sufficient enough to earn him a probationary berth at the Royal Academy in 1892, but finances kept him from taking advantage of it. Apprentices didn't make much money and the fortunes of his family must have been affected seriously by the revolutions occurring in the printing and reproduction fields.

By the 1890's a new type of artist had appeared to take advantage of the new technology. Robinson's grandfather had made a living by engraving the drawings of other artists onto wood so that the resulting blocks could be incorporated with the metal type to be inked and pressed against paper to make multiple copies of newspapers, magazines and books. The "drawings" of the artist were never seen, only the engraved version. His father drew for this type of reproduction and adjusted his designs to facilitate their translation by the engraver. As Charles Robinson grew up, so did the infant technique of photographic reproduction. Artists of his generation were the first to be able to present their art to the public directly as drawn. The engravers weren't happy, but the artists were ecstatic and their stylistic variations exploded in the '90s. Images by Beardsley, Abbey, and Crane were reproduced as the artists had drawn them, and the influence of those styles spread and Robinson was exposed to them all.

Charles Robinson - Andersen's Fairy TalesIt wasn't until he was 25 that Charles began to make professional sales. His first full book was Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (1895) and it's filled with over 100 pen & ink drawings that display many different facets of a talented artist turned loose to play. As usual, ornate pen and ink and the internet are not that compatible, but the image above left should give you one small sample of the exuberance and playfulness of the images. The publisher was John Lane of The Bodley Head and he gave Robinson free hand with the design of the book. It was exceedingly well received, going through innumerable printings and generating many other commissions.

Children's magazines were proliferating and provided an ever-growing demand for illustration. Golden Sunbeams, started in 1896, is a particularly rich source of his work for the first dozen issues.

He wasn't the only Robinson getting work, either. Golden Sunbeams featured art by Tom and William as well, and in 1899 the three brothers combined their efforts and styles on a version of Andersen's Fairy Tales. Charles' cover (above right) is an Art Nouveau design reminiscent of Bilibin or Margaret Armstrong. His fascination with cherubs and angels was to be life-long and he would incorporate them into hundreds of designs.

Charles Robinson - Lilliput LyricsCharles Robinson - The Reign of King HerlaRobinson illustrated lots of fairy tales and children's books throughout his career. Another John Lane publication, Lilliput Lyrics, also in 1899, featured a frontispiece (at left) and title page done in lithographic color. His years as an apprentice served him in good stead and I wouldn't be surprised if he worked the stones himself.

Just to make it clear (maybe) what I'm talking about, perhaps a short aside is necessary. Before the advent of color-separated photo reproduction techniques, color was applied to printed images though the mechanism of lithography. A large stone resided at the print shop and each color was delineated by an artist with a grease pencil. The stone was then covered with water and then with an oil-based ink. The grease pencil repelled the water and created a receptive surface for the ink. After a page was printed with a color, the stone would be wiped clean, ground down, and prepared for the next color. As you can imagine, registration was a significant problem. Ten to 20 colors were not uncommon. That's one reason why color plate books prior to the 1880's were (and are) uncommon. It wasn't easy, nor was it cheap.

Many of Robinson's early efforts were enhanced by the effective application of mechanical tones (grays) and an additional color. This can be seen in such titles as The Big Book Book of Fairy Tales and The Big Book of Nursery Rhymes.

Like his A Child's Garden of Verses, many of his early books feature numerous pen & ink drawings, with lists of illustrations that span several pages. The True Annals of Fairy Land: The Reign of King Herla (1900), for instance, has 82 images listed on five pages followed by the notation "Also numerous head and tail pieces." The aforementioned Big Book of Nursery Rhymes (1903) is over 300 pages and most of them have more than one drawing per page. The small vignette, the cherub with a flowing robe tailing off toward the bottom of the page, the billowing clouds, the fine, sinuous line often contrasted in the next image with a sure and powerful composition in black (as seen in the intricately bordered sailing image from King Herla, above right) - all are aspects of his pen and ink work that continue to fascinate me. The pure joy depicted therein is a constant source of additional pleasure. But then there are his watercolors...

The watercolors are astounding. Rich, subtle, ethereal - brilliant gems of tones and textures that reward repeated viewing with surprising treasures.

Charles Robinson - Big Book of Nursery Rhymes Charles Robinson - The Sensitive Plant Charles Robinson - The Happy Prince
The Big Book of Nursery Rhymes - 1903 The Sensitive Plant - by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1911 The Happy Prince - by Oscar Wilde, 1913

Charles Robinson - Once On a TimeThe early 20th century was a golden age of book publishing. Photo-mechanical reproduction was bringing life-like color to books for children and adults. Gift books abounded. There was a monthly publication called The Bookman that issued an annual each year at Christmastime. It would feature colorful inserts from the best books of the year. Each issue was over 1/2" thick. All the publishers would advertise their new books for the season, often with a list of all the titles they had available. The numbers are staggering. The opportunities for artists were never better and would never be as good again.

Charles Robinson was obviously enthralled with the idea of the "gift book." Rather than drawing and painting pictures to put alongside an author's text, Robinson approached the task as creating a book that was a gift - with the illustrated equivilent of colorful wrappings and shiny ribbons. He designed the entire book and even those featuring an abundance of tipped-in color plates were not spared his enchanting pen & ink drawings and his intricate gilt-embossed cover designs. And he was prolific, often producing six or seven books a year until WWI. Some classics that he illustrated include: Lullaby Land (1897), Sintram and His Companions (1900), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1907), Grimm's Fairy Tales (1910), The Secret Garden (1911), and many books written by W. Copeland, W. Jerrold, and himself.

After the war, he was one of the few artists of the Golden Age who continued to produce regular illustrated editions, albeit at a much reduced frequency. Above right is the frontispiece to A.A. Milne's Once On A Time from 1922.

Robinson was also an active painter, especially in his later life. Below is A Bit of Jade, a 12"x11" watercolor that was submitted and exhibited at the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours (the RI, to which he was elected in 1932). It's the back cover to The Brothers Robinson, an indispensible publication by Chris Beetles. 240 pages and more than twice that number of illustrations, many in color.

Charles Robinson - A Bit of Jade

Robinson lived an unpretentious, normal life, admired and loved by family and friends. He died unexpectedly in 1937. He was 66.


To learn more about Charles Robinson, see:

Fantasy - The Golden Age of Fantastic Illustration Brigid Peppin, 1975 Watson Guptill
Charles Robinson Leo de Freitas, 1976 Academy/St. Martins
The Fantastic Paintings of Charles and William Heath Robinson ed. David Larkin, 1976 Peacock Press/Bantam
The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists 1800-1914 Simon Houfe, 1978 Antique Collectors' Club
The Brothers Robinson Geoffrey Beare, 1992 Chris Beetles Ltd
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 1998
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of ImageS 4, 7, 9, 12 Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2002, 2003, 2007, 2010 JVJ Publishing

Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page written, designed & © 1998 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.

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