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Female Artists of the Victorian Era: Helen Allingham


Helen Allingham (Helen Mary Elizabeth Paterson) was an English illustrator and watercolourist in the reign of Queen Victoria who was profoundly inspired by her maternal grandmother Sarah Smith Herford or Mrs. John Herford and aunt Laura Herford.

Helen Allingham  was born on 26th September in 1848 in the small village of Swadlincote, Derbyshire. She was the eldest daughter of Alexander Henry Paterson, a physician, and Mary Herford Paterson. The family moved to Altrincham in Cheshire within the first year of Helen’s life where her father and her three-year-old sister Isabel died of a severe diphtheria epidemic in 1862 when she was only thirteen. The family thereafter moved to Birmingham where Helen initially studied art at the Birmingham School of Design at the age of seventeen. A year later in 1867 she was accepted to the prestigious Royal Academy where young Helen was deeply influenced by Foster and Fred Walker, and the Pre- Raphaelite painters Sir John Everett Millais and Sir Frederick Leighton.

Her initial career was as a black and white illustrator. In 1869 she was commissioned by the Once A Week magazine which was a weekly illustrated literary magazine published by Bradbury and Evans and It led her to more commissions by other periodicals and children’s books. In 1870, Helen was hired by The Graphic, a weekly illustrated newspaper, first published on 4 December 1869 by William Luson Thomas’s company Illustrated Newspapers Limited. She was the only woman among the founding staff members at The Graphic. By 1972, Helen decided to quit schooling at the Academy and work as a commercial artist. Her prestigious commissions included illustrations for Thomas Harding’s 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. Helen’s remarkable works were bringing her in contact with several prominent artists and writers and it was when she met with the Irish poet and editor of Fraser’s Magazine William Allingham who was a close friends with Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Ruskin, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They married on August 22nd, 1874. The newly wed couple took residence in Trafalgar Square, Chelsea, to be near William’s dearest friend, the octogenarian philosopher Thomas Carlyle. Since her marriage occurred as she was completing her graphic work for the Thomas Hardy novel, the November and December illustrations do not bear the initials “HP” but the signature “H. Allingham.” In a letter to James Osgood dated 6 Dec., 1888, and again in a letter to Edmund Gosse dated 25 July 1906, Hardy described Helen as “the best illustrator I ever had”. Freed from the necessity of earning a living, Helen left her job at The Graphic and put more time and effort in watercolours. In 1875, she achieved associate status in the Royal Watercolour Society ( A. R. W. S.) and later became the first woman to be admitted to full membership in 1890.

“Irish Cottage”, a watercolour painting by Helen Allingham.

In 1881, with the death of their dear friend, the Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, translator, historian and mathematician, Thomas Carlyle, the Allingham family decided to leave London and move a small hamlet called Sandhills near Witley in Surrey. The peaceful surroundings in Surrey were quite subsidiary to both Helen and William Allingham. She did many watercolour paintings of countryside and country cottages that became popular in London. In 1886, she was invited to exhibit her work titled as “Surrey Cottages” by the Fine Art Society in London.

Helen Allingham was a prolific and fascinating artist of the Victorian era. Throughout the ensuing years Helen continued to devote herself to her painting and sometimes traveled to Ireland, France and Venice for new subjects. Her illustrations and watercolours profoundly depicts her attraction towards the peaceful life outside of the industrialized London society.  To this day her works are studied by architects to better understand the construction techniques of a lost time. She was also a portraitist and Thomas Carlyle himself had been one of her sitters. She continued her painting and exhibition right up to the end of her life.




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