British, 1848 - 1926
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The name Helen Allingham is nowadays associated with charming watercolours portraying the English countryside; however, prior to marriage and before she took up a career in watercolour painting, she was, as Helen Paterson, a respected and much sought-after illustrator. In the early 1870s she was described as '... well known as one of the most powerful and most graceful of our designers for the wood engraver'. There were nevertheless, very personal reasons why she chose to follow this male-dominated profession, when barely out of her teenage years.
Born in Derbyshire to a doctor and his wife in 1848, Helen Mary Elizabeth Paterson grew up as the oldest of five brothers and sisters in the Cheshire countryside. The family's fortunes took an unexpected downward spiral in 1862, when Dr Paterson caught diphtheria from a patient and died soon after. The family had to leave their comfortable home and moved to Birmingham.
As a young girl, Helen displayed a natural talent for drawing. Her greatest influence was her aunt, Laura Herford, who in 1864 was the first female student to enter the Royal Academy Schools to benefit from a professional art training.
Following three years at the Birmingham School of Design Helen was recommended to continue her art studies at the Royal Academy Schools. Eager to earn a living to support her widowed mother rather than complete the art course at the RA Schools, the determined 20 year-old looked for work. The eminent engraver Joseph Swain gave her the break she needed. Her designs for children's books attracted the attention of the editor of The Graphic magazine, who offered her permanent employment with a generous salary. Miss Paterson's fine work also appeared in The Cornhill magazine. One of her most important assignments came in 1874, when she illustrated the serialization of Thomas Hardy's latest novel, Far From The Madding Crowd. The result was a triumph.
On her marriage to William Allingham in 1874, she gave up illustrating and turned to watercolour painting. But it was when the Allinghams moved from London to Witley in 1881, that Helen's work took a new direction. This corner of Surrey had become a popular destination with painters and writers during the 19th century and Mrs Allingham joined the list of celebrated artists. Not only was she immediately struck by the beauty of the countryside but it was the picturesque cottages and farmhouses that caught her eye and her winning formula was conceived.
However, there is more to her charming portrayals of the Surrey countryside than meets the eye. William and Helen Allingham were both fully aware of the current views being raised by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris regarding the future of the nation's historic buildings and natural landscape and her paintings reflect this concern. Every building that appears in her paintings actually existed and her meticulous attention to detail result in her paintings becoming a vital record of vernacular buildings, of which many still stand today.
By the mid 1880s Mrs Allingham's watercolours were adorning the walls of the most fashionable London art galleries. In addition to her cottage and farmhouse subjects were coastal views, gardens and landscapes. These scenes were the very subjects the professional classes wanted. Her exhibitions at The Fine Art Society and The Society of Painters in Water Colours were always well-attended and her pictures highly-prized.
In 1888, family matters took priority and it was William's declining health that prompted the Allinghams to move to Hampstead in 1888. A great supporter of his wife's work, it was a cruel twist of fate that William died only weeks before Helen learned of her full membership to the Royal Watercolour Society in 1890.
With three children to support, 42 year-old Mrs Allingham had no choice but than to paint to a more demanding routine. Although she was well known for her paintings of Surrey scenes, she also painted in Middlesex, Kent, the Isle of Wight and the West Country. These watercolours which portrayed the beauty of the English countryside continued to be snapped up by dealers and collectors alike, and they were often chosen for display at international exhibitions.
At the turn of the 20th century, the artist visited Venice twice. She greatly enjoyed the change of scenery and painted every aspect of Venetian life. She looked forward to exhibiting these paintings on her return home to demonstrate her ability to paint scenes other than her usual cottages. These watercolours formed a large exhibition at the Fine Art Society in 1904. But to her great disappointment they were not well received by the picture-buying public. They were not the pictures she was associated with and they did not sell as well as she had hoped.
In the early 1900s shrewd publishers took advantage of her continued popularity and books such as Happy England, The Homes of Tennyson and Cottage Homes of England came onto the market in quick succession. Each publication contained numerous colour reproductions of her trademark pictures and for the first time her art reached a wider audience.
Although her paintings were considered old-fashioned after the First World War, Helen Allingham continued to send work to the RWS until 1925, missing only two years since joining as an Associate in 1875.
In 1926 she combined a stay with old friends in Surrey with a sketching trip around her old haunts. It was there she enjoyed a quiet celebration to mark her birthday. But only two days into her 79th year, Helen Allingham died suddenly, perhaps appropriately, in the very corner of Surrey with which she will always be associated.
Biography by Annabel Watts.
- The Helen Allingham Society
A selection of art exhibitions which have featured this
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