Posted 21st November 2017
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Dr Cicely Robinson
This Autumn, Watts Gallery- Artists' Village holds a major exhibition devoted to the British artist Helen Allingham RWS (1848-1926). Highly acclaimed by leading contemporary critics, including John Ruskin, Allingham's watercolours are a celebration of rural landscapes and cottage architecture in the south of England. The first woman to be elected as a full member of the Royal Watercolour Society, this exhibition explores the significant contribution that this ground-breaking woman artist made to the Victorian art world.
Born Helen Paterson in Derbyshire, she initially studied at the Birmingham School of Art before moving to London aged just seventeen to pursue a professional career. Training at the Royal Female School of Art, the prestigious Royal Academy Schools, and later at the Slade School of Art, Allingham became a successful illustrator and artist.
Allingham initially pursued a professional career as a graphic artist and children's book illustrator. Following in the footsteps of John Millais, Holman Hunt and Frederick Sandys, Allingham created illustrations for the popular journal Once a Week before becoming the only female founding member of The Graphic, a new illustrated weekly magazine. Gaining a reputation for fine figurative work, in 1874 Allingham illustrated the first publication of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. Over 30 years later Hardy would still refer to Allingham as the 'best illustrator I ever had'.
In 1874 Allingham married the Irish poet and diarist William Allingham (1824-89). Working in an era when women were still traditionally confined to domestic roles, in the same year that she became a middle-class wife and mother, Allingham progressed from illustrator to watercolourist and began to exhibit at the Royal Academy.
Attracted to the rural way of life idealised in their respective art and poetry, in 1881 the Allinghams moved to rural Surrey. They first stayed in the picturesque village of Shere before taking up residence in the small hamlet, Sandhills. The county was home to a thriving community of artists and intellectuals including the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson and watercolourist Myles Birket Foster. Spending a total of eight years living in Surrey, the south east of England provided Allingham with a wealth of artistic inspiration.
Allingham was one of a growing band of environmentalists, spearheaded by John Ruskin and William Morris, to be passionately concerned for the preservation of the English countryside. As old houses were destroyed, either by unsympathetic restoration or demolition, Allingham was determined to preserve this historic rural architecture in paint. Allingham's first solo exhibition 'Surrey Cottages', held at the Fine Art Society in 1886, promoted rural preservation on a national scale.
While living in Surrey, Allingham became acquainted with the influential Arts & Crafts gardener Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932). Painting the experimental planting at Jekyll's famous Arts & Crafts home and garden, Munstead Wood, Allingham became famed for her garden scenes.
Reaching a peak in popularity at the turn of the twentieth century, Allingham's pastoral vision of southern England continued to offer a reassuring and nostalgic form of escape. The Fine Art Society first published 'Happy England', a volume of Allingham's most iconic works, in 1903. Followed by the 'Cottage Homes of England' in 1909, Allingham's art took on new national status for a global audience.
Bringing together rarely seen works from private collections together with significant paintings from public collections, this exhibition celebrates Allingham's extraordinary talent as a watercolourist exploring how she became one of the most successful creative women of the nineteenth century.
Helen Allingham, guest curated by Annabel Watts, runs from 21 November 2017 until 18 February 2018.