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Helen Allingham R.W.S. (1848-1926)

Helen Mary Elizabeth Paterson arrived in this world on the 26th of September, 1848 in the small village of Swadlincote, near Burton on Trent in Derbyshire, England. She was the eldest of seven children born to Alexander Henry Paterson, a rural physician, and Mary Chance Herford, daughter of a Manchester wine merchant. Within her first year of her life, the Patersons moved to Altrincham, Cheshire where Helen's father set up a medical practice and the young family grew and prospered. It was during these years that young Helen's interest and talent in art blossomed, inspired by her maternal grandmother Sarah Smith Herford, and especially her aunt Laura Herford, both accomplished artists of their day.

Self Portrait 1885At age thirteen, Helen's carefree childhood was shattered by the death of her father. While battling selflessly to treat local victims during a severe diphtheria epidemic, Dr. Paterson succumbed to the disease himself in May of 1862, along with Helen's three year old sister Isabel. The young family moved shortly thereafter to Birmingham where their Paterson aunts helped provide for them. As Helen's artistic talents continued to grow, she enrolled in the Birmingham School of Design and at age seventeen secured a place in the Female School of Art in London. A year later in 1867 she was accepted on her first try into the prestigious Royal Academy Schools, a door first opened to women by Helen's aunt Laura just a few years before.

The famed Royal Academy School attracted many visiting masters, and young Helen was profoundly influenced by the teachings of Frederick Walker, Sir Frederick Leighton, and Sir John Everett Millais, co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Tuition at the Royal Academy was free, but Helen still needed income to pay for her accommodations and expenses. She sought work with engraving firms, sketching figures and scenes in black & white, and in 1869 was commissioned by the Once A Week magazine for four full-page illustrations. Her work was well received, leading to more commissions by other periodicals and children's books while she continued her schooling three days a week.

In 1870 Helen was hired as one of the founding staff members - and only woman - on The Graphic, one of a new breed of large-scale, high quality illustrated weekly magazines. Commissions to illustrate books and periodicals continued to pour in and by 1872 Helen decided to cease her schooling at the Academy and work as a commercial artist. Her prestigious commissions included illustrations for Thomas Harding's new novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, and for a series of girl's novels by Juliana Ewing including Six to Sixteen and A Flat Iron for a Farthing. She enrolled for evening classes at the Slade School and worked alongside Kate Greenaway, with whom she became a life long friend. Helen's work was now bringing her into contact with many of London's prominent writers and artists, and inevitably her path crossed that of the renowned Irish poet and editor of Fraser's Magazine, William Allingham. They married on August 22nd, 1874.

William Allingham 1874Born in Ballyshannon, Ireland, William Allingham was nearly twice Helen's age at the time of their marriage. Twenty-four years her senior, he was a well established figure in London's literary circles and was close friends with Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Ruskin, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The newly wed couple took residence in Trafalgar Square, Chelsea, to be near William's dearest friend, the octogenarian philosopher Carlyle. Now free from the daily need to earn a living, Helen left her job at The Graphic and turned to her true love, watercolours. Two of her watercolour paintings, The Milkmaid and Wait For Me, were accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1874 and sold during the exhibition, bringing her commissions for further paintings. With the sponsorship of the eminent watercolourist Alfred Hunt she achieved the rare honor of associate status in the Royal Watercolour Society in 1875, and later became the first woman to be admitted to full membership.

Marriage brought children for Helen but did not hinder her career in art. Her first son, born in November 1875, was named Gerald Carlyle in honor of the great sage. A daughter christened Eva Margaret and known as "Evey" followed in February, 1877, and finally Henry William arrived in 1882. During the seven years the Allinghams lived in London, Helen exhibited more than a hundred watercolours, some depicting her own children as models. Her early work tended to feature large figures in a landscape, but later, influenced by their holidays in the country, her style shifted more to smaller figures with emphasis on the rural scene. With the death of their dear friend Carlyle in 1881, the family decided to leave London and move to a permanent home in a small hamlet called Sandhills near Witley in Surrey. It was here that Helen developed her fame and reputation for painting cottages.

Lessons, Evey and Henry

The years at Sandhills were some of the happiest and most prolific for Helen and William. The peaceful surroundings were quite conducive to William's poetry and Helen's painting, and she did many watercolours of the countryside, flower gardens, her children and, most of all, the numerous old picturesque country cottages that surrounded them. Helen's cottage paintings became very popular back in London and in 1886 she was invited to hold a one-woman exhibition titled Surrey Cottages by the Fine Art Society in London. Her devotion to cottages, however, was not merely for the sentimental pleasure of an industrialized London society. Railway lines were cutting a swathe through the countryside, bringing a swelling middle class seeking new comfortable country homes. The old thatched cottages that stood for hundreds of years were now being modernized or even demolished at a rapid pace. Helen set out to immortalize these ancient bastions, capturing every detail in extraordinary accuracy with a warm, sympathetic style unmatched by other artists of the time. She traveled the countryside, staying just ahead of the builders and wrecking balls, painting outdoors with a pallette of just nine colors. While she would add figures and occasionally reverse modernization by restoring thatch or window latticework, she was careful to keep idealization to a minimum. To this day her works are studied by architects to better understand the construction techniques of a lost time.

By 1888 William's health was beginning to fail and the couple decided to move back to London to be near their many friends and provide for their children's education. They took up residence in Hampstead, but Helen continued her excursions back to Surrey and Kent by train to paint. In November, 1889 William died, leaving Helen with a young family and very little money. She was now dependent once again on her painting skills and applied herself prolifically, often fetching hefty sums for her ever popular cottage pictures. In 1890 the Royal Society of Watercolours finally opened their membership to women, and Helen had the honor of being the first elected into the Society.

The Later YearsThroughout the ensuing years Helen continued to devote herself to her family and her painting, sometimes traveling to Ireland, France and Venice for new subjects. She exhibited her beautiful country watercolours every year in London and her cottage scenes grew in popularity. Helen collaborated with Marcus B. Huish for a book about English country life titled "Happy England", published in 1903 and featuring some 80 colour plates of Helen's watercolours. In 1905 she worked with her brother Arthur Paterson on a book titled "The Homes of Tennyson" containing 20 colour plates. She also edited several books of William's poetry, and provided another 64 pictures for a book by Stewart Dick titled "The Cottage Homes of England" published in 1909. While never wealthy, Helen and family were making a good living and enjoying their many friends in both London and Surrey.

Helen continued to paint and exhibit her work right up to the end of her life. On September 28th, 1926, Helen Allingham died of a sudden illness while visiting an old friend at Valewood House in Haslemere, just a few miles from her old country home in Sandhills. She was 78 years old. (See Obituary)

A more detailed account of Helen Allingham's life and works can be found in Ina Taylor's wonderful biography "Helen Allingham's England"

The images on this page are reproduced with the kind permission of the Patric Allingham Bequest at Hampstead Museum, Burgh House.

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