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26 January 2022updated 27 Jan 2022 5:13pm

The rural fantasies of Helen Allingham

How the Victorian painter and illustrator excised the hard reality of country life and replaced it with poetry.

By Michael Prodger

Helen Allingham (1848-1926), the purveyor of gem-like watercolours of English cottages and their gardens, was one of the most popular artists of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Her pictures spoke to city dwellers and homesick emigrants alike of an essential and pure England, all thatch and hollyhocks, and less a land of lost content than a distillation, dream and idyll. For her innumerable admirers, Eden was near at hand, nestling down the lanes of Surrey and Kent.

Today it is hard to recover the feeling that greeted her work. For all their accomplishment – and Allingham was undoubtedly a supremely talented manipulator of watercolour – her pictures seem contrived, shallow and sentimental. And escapist too: men rarely feature in them and nor does physical work; summer is never-ending and there is no such thing as wind or rain. How could any real rural world be sustained by muslin-clad girls and infants (drawn from professional models and her own children rather than real cottagers) feeding chickens charmingly by a picket gate or gathering apples in an orchard?

Eighteenth-century artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and George Morland had also painted pictures of cottages and their inhabitants, but they showed far more hard-scrabble lives – with cottagers in rags rather than muslin and animals that don’t look as though they belong in a petting zoo. Allingham now pushes our suspension of disbelief too far.

[See also: The flickering landscapes of Alessandro Magnasco]

Nevertheless, one of Allingham’s admirers was John Ruskin, who praised not just her fidelity to nature but the moral vision of her pictures. He saw in Allingham’s recurring motif of young mothers and children something profound and contrasted their fresh-air innocence with the lot of their urban counterparts. In 1883, in his Oxford Lectures, he discussed “The art of England” and singled out Allingham and her friend the fairy painter Kate Greenaway for special praise. In their work, he said: “there are no railroads… to carry the children away with… no tunnel or pit mouths to swallow them up”. Instead, in their paintings, “the radiance and innocence of reinstated infant divinity showered again among the flowers of English meadows”. Some critics thought Ruskin’s praise a sign of encroaching mental feebleness, but many others concurred wholeheartedly with this idea of rustic purity and authenticity.

What’s more, Allingham’s gender gave her pictures added authority. AL Baldry, discussing her work in the Magazine of Art in 1899, wrote that: “There is always a delight in recognising in clever art work the characteristics of the woman’s hand… In the case of Mrs Allingham, the keynote of her effort is a plain preference for the feminine point of view, a definite desire to use the special line of thought which is natural to her sex.” This, he said, made her vision “quite convincing to the general public”.

Part of that vision was the danger facing her cottage world. Railways and developers meant that many were being pulled down or modernised and her pictures – so detailed in capturing brickwork, tiles or lattice windows (which she would sometimes “replace” if they had been removed from the cottage she was painting) – formed part of a wider movement to protect the old vernacular architecture. In 1877, William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, in 1895 Octavia Hill founded the National Trust, and Ruskin was a proselytiser too. 

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[See also: The wonders of Albrecht Dürer’s world]

This intellectual kinship was no accident: Allingham belonged to the upper-echelon world of Victorian art and letters. She was born in Derbyshire, moved to Cheshire as a young child and then, after her doctor father died of diphtheria, to relatives in Birmingham. Among those relatives was her aunt, the artist Laura Herford, one of the agitators who had pressed the Royal Academy to admit women. Herford became the first female member of the RA Schools when she was admitted in 1860 having submitted drawings signed “L Herford” – and was assumed to be a man. Allingham studied art first in Birmingham and then at various institutions in London before following her aunt into the RA Schools in 1867.

In 1870 she became one of the founders – and the only woman – of the weekly Graphic magazine, where her illustrations were noted and commented on by Vincent Van Gogh. Among her other commercial work were the illustrations for the serial publication of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd in the Cornhill Magazine: decades later the novelist recalled her as the “best illustrator I ever had”.

Her magazine work also brought her to the attention of the Irish poet and editor of Fraser’s Magazine, William Allingham, 24 years her senior. When they married in 1874, she became part of his circle, which included Thomas Carlyle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson and the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Marriage also allowed her to put aside her illustration work and take up watercolours. In 1881, the family moved to Witley near Godalming in Surrey and her cottage paintings began in earnest.

In this watercolour, View over Sandhills, rather than concentrate on a single cottage she has shown a Home Counties arcadia, the roofs of a nearby village nestling in the Surrey Hills. In its sheer fecundity and sense of well-being – with the smoke from cooking fires drifting into the near-still summer air – there is more than a hint of the visionary landscapes painted by Samuel Palmer in the Kent village of Shoreham some 50 years earlier. Allingham’s fondness for detail can sometimes choke her paintings, but here, although she remains scrupulous, she verges on the euphoric.

Allingham claimed to use just nine colours in her pictures, five of them yellows. They are arrayed here in the wheat fields, on the sun-doused barn wall and mixed into the tiled roofs of the cottages and the branches of the trees too. Indeed, she mixes in two times of day as well – a bright midday sun and the purpling haze of evening in the distance. 

When William died in 1889, Allingham’s watercolours became the sole means of supporting her young family. But by then they were already hugely popular: she had exhibited 66 pictures at her first solo show, at the Fine Art Society in 1886, and all sold, as did a further 82 in an exhibition the following year. In 1890 she became the first woman accepted into the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour, and in 1903 she received further recognition with the publication of Happy England as Painted by Helen Allingham RWS by Marcus Huish.

Thanks to Allingham, by the time of her death, aged 78, the humble cottage was no longer simply a picturesque labourer’s dwelling but a richly poetic symbol of England itself.

[See also: How William Hodges captured Captain Cook’s adventures]

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed