Helen Allingham
by Catherine Peck

A Bit of Autumn Border Helen Allingham (1848-1926) was an illustrator and watercolourist, whose career flourished in the late Victorian era. Best known for her rural artwork, the Surrey countryside, where she lived from 1881 to 1888, was a primary subject in her watercolours. She was among several artists based in Surrey who helped fuel the Victorian nostalgic admiration for the peaceful English countryside and its isolated rural communities, as an idealised counterpart to rapid industrial and urban expansion. Helen’s work was showcased at exhibitions for the Royal Academy of Arts and the Fine Art Society, and decorated the walls of Victorian homes. In 1890, she became the first woman to be elected as a full member of the Royal Watercolour Society.

Helen was born in Swadlincote, Derbyshire, to Alexander Henry Paterson and Mary Chance Herford. Raised in a middle-class family and with a keen interest in art, Helen actively pursued a career as a professional artist. At a time when women faced restrictions to education and employment, her aunt, Laura Herford, became the first female student to enrol in the Royal Academy Schools in 1860. Following her aunt’s success, Helen moved to London and enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools in 1868. Although tuition was free, Helen worked as an illustrator for books and periodicals to pay for her accommodation and living expenses, and eventually left her studies to work as a full-time illustrator. When she married the Irish poet William Allingham in 1874, she focused on her passion, watercolour.

A main source of inspiration for Helen’s watercolours was Surrey, where she and William spent several holidays. In 1881, they moved with their two children to Sandhills, a small hamlet near Witley in Surrey. Helen clearly idealised the Surrey countryside in her work. Old cottages nestled in woodlands beneath clear skies, cottage gardens always in bloom, and healthy, well-clothed working-class women and children leading seemingly content lives, were among the most popular scenes in her paintings. The reality of rural working-class poverty and squalid, dilapidated cottages was excluded from her work. Her main aim was to record in watercolour the vernacular structures of old Surrey cottages, which were being lost or distorted by demolition and renovation. Moreover, it was a nostalgic, charming view of the countryside which appealed to her predominantly middle-class urban buyers, not the harsh reality.

Feeding the Fowls The Allingham family returned to London in 1888. William died the following year, and Helen, widowed with three children, relied on her art career to support her family, as she had supported herself in her student years. She travelled across the country and abroad in search of inspiration for her art and frequently returned to Surrey. In 1926, she made one last trip there and died while staying with a friend at Valewood House in Haslemere.

Surrey was a place that had a profound impact on Helen Allingham’s life and work. The time she had spent there and the idealistic view she had developed of the local homes and people, continued to pervade her paintings throughout the rest of her career. In her detailed and vivid watercolours, a wistful view of Surrey’s rural history survives, a lost world of cottages and flowers tucked away in the countryside.

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