English Watercolour Painter and Illustrator of the Victorian Era

Helen Allingham (Photograph by Huish, Marcus Bourne (1903))

Helen Allingham was born Helen Paterson in Derbyshire in 1848, the grand daughter and niece of artists, Sarah Smith Herford and Laura Herford. Helen studied at the Birmingham School of Design and the National Art Training School (later the Royal College of Art) and worked as an illustrator of books and periodicals.

In 1872 she was the only female member of staff of newly formed newspaper ‘The Graphic’.

One particular highlight was her commission to provide 12 illustrations for the serialisation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, in the Cornhill Magazine which were much admired. In fact, while Vincent Van Gogh was developing as an artist by studying English illustrated journals, he remarked on Paterson’s work, as she was then.

In 1874 she married the Irish poet William Allingham and gave up illustration to concentrate on watercolours. In 1881 William, Helen and their two children moved to Sandhills near Witley, where a third child was born the following year.

There was a thriving community of artists in Witley at this period and the Allinghams knew watercolourist Myles Birket Foster, illustrator Randolph Caldecott and engraver and printer Edmund Evans. Illustrator Kate Greenaway, who also lived locally, had been a friend of Helen’s since their student days. The family moved in intellectual circles, socialising with naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, the Huxleys and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The Allinghams also became friends with Gertrude Jekyll and Helen painted several views of Miss Jekyll’s famous garden at Munstead Wood.

South Border at Munstead Wood by Helen Allingham (Courtesy of Godalming Museum)

Helen Allingham was inspired by the beautiful west Surrey countryside and produced many watercolours of its picturesque timber framed cottages and their inhabitants. In 1886 she held a solo exhibition, “Surrey Cottages” at the Fine Art Society, and the following year a second “In the Country”. In 1888 the family moved to Hampstead. In 1890 Helen Allingham became the first woman to be admitted to full membership of the Royal Watercolour Society. She continued to make frequent visits to west Surrey and died on a visit to friends in Haslemere in 1926. Her work is seen by some as sentimental but it has remained enduringly popular and has shaped our view of traditional rural England.

In 1890, Allingham became the first woman to be admitted as a full member of the Royal Watercolour Society.

At Godalming Museum you can see Helen Allingham’s painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s garden, the “South Border at Munstead Wood” and find out about her, and about the other people mentioned here, in the People’s Gallery. Gertrude Jekyll, too, had a deep love of the landscape, people and traditional buildings of West Surrey, which is evident in her writing and in her design partnership with Sir Edwin Lutyens. After visiting Godalming, visit Guildford Museum to see her wonderful collection of “rural bygones” evidence for a vanished age of rural life which she recorded in her book “Old West Surrey” and which Helen Allingham immortalised in her paintings.

Helen is just one of the talented Surrey Women featured in Surrey Museums Month 2017. To find out more about the event and other celebrated Surrey Women click here.

Text kindly produced by Godalming Museum