Object of the Month: March 2021

1 March 2021

Celebrating International Womens Day:

Helen Allingham (1848 - 1926), A Surrey Cottage (1880), watercolour


For this month's Object of the Month, artist and frequent Burgh House collaborator Rea Stavropoulos shares Helen Allingham's story.

Call her by her name, by Rea Stavropoulos

International Women’s Day is a good opportunity to reflect on women’s surnames and the influence they can have on their place in the world - on their visibility. The stories of two artists in the Burgh House collection, working 150 years ago, are inspiring but also raise issues still relevant for us today. 

Helen Allingham (1848 1926) is very well represented in the collection through a generous bequest by her grandson. She was popular in her lifetime for her cottage garden watercolours depicting an idealised version of country life and of a world that was disappearing through growing industrialisation. She was the first woman to be elected a full member of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1890 and carried on painting, exhibiting and selling her work until her death. She combined her work as an artist with marriage to William Allingham, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle and almost twice her age, and raised three children. Allingham’s popularity made her name synonymous with the “cottage garden genre”.

“Happy England” a book first published in 1903 was illustrated with her paintings, focusing on comforting images of a rural Eden. With changing tastes, later generations sought more challenging art and may have typecast Allingham’s paintings as pretty “chocolate box” works - I know that reproductions of her work decorated biscuit tins. In 2021, after a year of living through a global pandemic, when we have been exhorted to “stay home” and learn to cultivate our gardens, we appreciate what is close to us in our narrowing world, seeking comfort in the domestic and there is a renewed yearning for a rural idyll as many seek to move out from city centres. Allingham’s country cottages and bucolic scenes seem to be in tune with the times once again.

The Victorian artist Helen Paterson was a respected professional illustrator, helping to support her widowed mother and many siblings through her earnings. Precociously talented, one of the first female students to attend the Royal Academy School, she is also represented in the Burgh House collection through examples of her illustrations in the journal "The Graphic”- for which she was a full time salaried employee - and in children’s books. Burgh House has the “Dolorosa” print, illustrating a story by Victor Hugo and a print from the Victorian bestseller “Flat Iron for a Farthing”.

The Graphic was a socially engaged publication so admired by Van Gogh that when he was teaching himself to draw he bought 10 years worth of bound copies, despite his impoverished and peripatetic state. This was a substantial investment as these would have covered several metres of shelf space. Paterson’s illustrations for The Graphic covered a wide range of subjects from theatre performances and archery contests to social conditions, so she must have moved around London a great deal as young woman. She illustrated Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” when it was first serialised in the Cornhill magazine and George Eliot wanted her to illustrate a further edition of her novel “Romola” as she was not too pleased with Lord Leighton’s illustrations - this was Frederick Leighton, President of the Royal Academy!

What’s in a name? A great deal, in this case. Helen Paterson and Helen Allingham are one and the same person. But it would be easy to lose the link and to remain unaware of the richness, complexity and range of this one woman’s artistic legacy if we fail to see or make the connection. Helen signed her name as “Paterson” throughout her career as a single woman illustrator, but changed her artist’s signature to “Allingham” after her marriage when she stopped working as an illustrator and turned to watercolours. It is Paterson that Van Gogh refers to in his letters where he specifically mentions his admiration for the “Dolorosa”, an image of an anguished female figure walking barefoot through a bleak landscape. I amended Allingham’s Wikipedia entry to include this overlooked fact and to link Paterson with Allingham.

The facts of Paterson-Allingham’s life and her artistic journey challenge preconceptions. I co-curated the exhibition “Beyond Watercolour Gardens: Helen Allingham Revisited” at Burgh House in 2016*, exhibiting my own work alongside Allingham’s to provide a fresh perspective to her life and work. You can visit the exhibition with me in a 15 minute video on You Tube.

The example of Helen Paterson Allingham continues to interest me as a woman and artist working today. She offers inspiration even in our era of apparently greater freedom. Helen’s early widowhood in 1889 may have given her greater personal freedom. She kept the Allingham name but did not marry again or have another liaison as far as we know. She took pleasure in her art. Together with Kate Greenaway, a lifelong friend since art school, they would take the train from London and set out on sketching expeditions in the Surrey countryside. Two women friends sharing their mutual pleasure in painting outdoors, enjoying the sense of freedom that it gave them. In continuing to work as a painter throughout her life, able to paint and sell what she enjoyed, while remaining closely involved with children and grandchildren, Allingham displayed the insistence, persistence, resilience and strength required for an artist and remains an inspiration for women in the twenty-first century.


*   See Rea Stavropoulos’ s artwork on www.reastavropoulos.com and follow her on Instagram @reastavropoulos

Copyright Rea Stavropoulos 9 March 2021

Helen Allingham (1848 - 1926), A Surrey Cottage (1880), watercolour