Helen Allingham Revisited
TODAY she might be seen as strictly chocolate box, an artist with a remarkable passion for painting picturesque country cottages bedecked in flowers and blue skies smiling above their ancient thatch.
But a major exhibition due to open at the Burgh House Museum in Hampstead will indeed show off many of her delightful vistas, including Hampstead Heath, but also present Helen Allingham as a pioneer Victorian female watercolour artist.
That is thanks to its own unique Allingham Collection, most of it donated to Burgh House by Helen’s grandson Patrick in 1989, which reveals too her highly successful career as a magazine and book illustrator, along with family photos and possessions.
And the exhibition, Helen Allingham Revisited, due to run from July 6 to October 9, will take a contemporary look of her life, her late marriage in 1874 to the Irish editor, author and poet William Allingham, her friends and the evolution of her artistic career.
Indeed, during the 37 years the Allinghams lived on the corner of Eldon Grove and Lyndhurst Road, Hampstead, they were part of the same avant garde circle as the critic John Ruskin, the poets Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning, the philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Briton Riviere and Kate Greenaway.
“Helen could be considered radical in that she was successful in making a good professional living from her art before she was married,” says Rebecca Lodge, who is curating the exhibition with Rea Stavropoulos.
“Before her marriage she worked for The Graphic, one of a new breed of weekly magazines launched to challenge the Illustrated London News, was commissioned to illustrate books, including Thomas Hardy’s new novel Far From the Madding Crowd and a series of girl’s novels.
“Marcus Huish, who wrote Happy England, holds Helen Allingham up an example of a different type of female artist – one who was successful in her own right, not as the daughter or wife of a famous artist, as many successful female artists were at this point.
“It could be argued that as she preceded the radical Slade School artists of the early 20th century, many of whom were women, she helped to pave the way for women to forge artistic careers, independent of male affiliation.”
Born Helen Mary Elizabeth Paterson in September 1848, in the Derbyshire village of Swadlincote, Helen was the daughter of a rural physician. She grew up mainly in Altrincham, Cheshire, and her talent in art was inspired in particular by her maternal aunt Laura Herford, the first woman to be accepted into the Royal Academy School simply by submitting a picture using only her initials, which was accepted solely on merit.
At 13 Helen’s life was shattered by the death of her father while treating local victims of a diphtheria epidemic, the family moving to Birmingham where Helen enrolled in the Birmingham School of Design and, at 17, secured a place in the Female School of Art in London.
A year later she was accepted into the prestigious Royal Academy Schools, where she was influenced by the teachings of artists Sir Frederic Leighton and Sir John Everett Millais, co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
And it was in seeking to pay for her accommodation and expenses that Helen found work with engraving firms, sketching figures, was commissioned by the Once A Week magazine for four-colour illustrations, and went on to become part of the team at The Graphic.
Her new role introduced her to London’s prominent writers and artists, in particular William Allingham, then almost twice Helen’s age and editor of Fraser’s Magazine. They married in 1874.
That same year two of her paintings, The Milkmaid and Wait for Me, were accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, their sale bringing her further commissions and the following year she achieved the rare honour of associate status of the Royal Watercolour Society, later to become the first woman to be admitted to full membership.
William Allingham, by whom she had a son and a daughter, died in Hampstead in 1889. Helen died of a sudden illness while visiting friends in Surrey, just a few miles from her old country home in Sandhills, in 1926, aged 78.
• The exhibition is at Burgh House, Hampstead, from July 6-October 9