Helen Allingham was born Helen Mary Elizabeth Paterson at Swadlincote, near Burton on Trent, Derbyshire, on 26 September 1848, the eldest child (of seven) of Alexander Henry Paterson, a physician, and his wife Mary Chance (nee Herford). The family moved to Altrincham, Cheshire, when Helen was only one. The family were devastated when Alexander and one of Helen’s sisters succumbed to an epidemic of diphtheria in 1862.
The family thereafter moved to Birmingham where aunts helped to provide for them. It was another aunt, Laura Herford, along with grandmother Sarah Smith Herford, both accomplished artists, who inspired Helen’s artistic talents. She attended Birmingham School of Design and at 17 earned a place at the Royal Female School of Art in London. A year later, she was amongst the first — her aunt Laura being the very first — women to secure a place at the Royal Academy Schools.
She helped pay her way by engraving, sketching and illustrating for magazines, including Once a Week in 1869. A year later, she was employed by The Graphic and, as commissions for book and periodical illustrations continued to come in, she gave up her schooling at the Academy in 1872. Instead, she enrolled in evening classes at Slade School where she became a lifelong friend of fellow student Kate Greenaway.
Her book illustrations included prestigious works such as the girls’ novels of Juliana Ewing and Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Maddening Crowd.
She met William Allingham, an Irish poet and editor of Fraser’s Magazine, who, although he was 24 years her senior, she married on 22 August 1874. Marriage meant that she was able to give up her job on The Graphic and concentrate on painting watercolours, some of which was accepted by the Royal Academy. Through the sponsorship of Alfred Hunt, she became an associate of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1875 and was later, in 1890, the first woman to be granted full membership.
Following the birth of their first two children, the Allinghams moved to Sandhills, Surrey, where a third child was born. Here she became well known for her picturesque paintings of cottages and an exhibition entitled Surrey Cottages was held by the Fine art Society in London in 1886.
Her husband’s health began to fail in 1888 and the family moved back to London, taking a house in Hampstead. He died in November 1889. Helen continued to paint and exhibit, also taking on illustration work for such books as Happy England by Marcus B. Huish (1903), The Homes of Tennyson (1905) by her brother, novelist Arthur Paterson, and The Cottage Homes of England by Stewart Dick (1909). She also edited three volumes of her late husband’s writings.
She continued to work and exhibit until her death. She fell suddenly ill during a visit to a friend at Valewood House, Haslemere, and died after only a few hours on 28 September 1926, aged 78.
Many more pictures by Helen Allingham can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.
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